What’s Up, Doc(trine)?

All the Bush Doctrine smugness misses the point

Of the many awkward moments in last night’s airing of ABC’s Sarah Palin interview, perhaps the most awkward came when Charlie Gibson questioned McCain’s would-Veep about the Bush doctrine. (Besides, that is, the moments when Palin pronounced “nuclear” as “nukular”—which, just, noooooooooooo…)

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?

PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?

GIBSON: The Bush — well, what do you interpret it to be?

PALIN: His world view?

GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, annunciated September 2002, before the Iraq War.

PALIN: I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell-bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made, and with new leadership, and that’s the beauty of American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership comes opportunity to do things better.

GIBSON: The Bush doctrine as I understand it is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with us?

PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligent and legitimate evidence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country.

Palin’s circuitous, stilted, sound-bite-laden answers to Gibson’s Bush doctrine-related questions would, at first blush, seem to betoken the governor’s unfamiliarity with recent world events. Which, if so, and to state the obvious, would be a massive liability in a vice presidential candidate who, under a very imaginable combination of very imaginable circumstances, could become president of the U.S., Commander-in-Chief of its armed forces, the de facto leader of the free world, et cetera.

And, of course, the pundits pounced. “Sarah Palin: ‘Bush Doctrine?’” scoffed the headline of the Tribune’s The Swamp blog. “Why Palin’s “Bush Doctrine” Gaffe Matters: Does She Know What Foreign Policy Doctrine Is?” asked TPM’s Greg Sargent. The self-satisfied schadenfreude in all this is nearly palpable. Gawker even named its every-Friday shout-out-to-its-advertisers post “Our Advertisers Know What the Bush Doctrine Is.”

But let’s be fair here. As others—mostly conservative analysts—have noted, the Bush doctrine is, to some extent, like beauty and mirrors and President Bush himself, in the eye of the beholder. Yes, the doctrine has come to be associated with the strategy of preemptive war, or, as Gibson rightly noted, “the right of anticipatory self-defense,” as laid out in the administration’s September 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States. Fair enough. But the doctrine, as The Corner’s Jay Nordlinger points out, also “got murky—acquired many branches and penumbra” in the years since that document was first released. The Bush doctrine now concerns much more than preemptive war.

No better proof of that than in The New York Times itself, which, in a September 2002 editorial, published five days after the National Security Strategy document was released, defined the Bush doctrine thusly:

American military power will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from ever trying to challenge the military supremacy of the United States. Washington is free to take pre-emptive action against hostile states that are developing weapons of mass destruction. The successful strategies of the cold war, which relied on the threat of overwhelming American retaliation to deter foreign aggression, are largely obsolete. Forceful measures to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons are more effective than treaties.

These ideas are all connected, to be sure, and all part of the Bush doctrine. But they’re not easily confinable to a single sound bite. The doctrine, particularly as a specimen of living history, is more complicated than Gibson suggested last night—and more complicated than pundits are suggesting today. Which isn’t to justify Palin’s responses to Gibson’s questions—clearly, she was simply unfamiliar with “Bush doctrine” as a term, which doesn’t bode well for her overall knowledge of recent political history—but it is to say that perhaps all the smugness in today’s assessment of her responses is just a tad out of place. And that perhaps all the schadenfreude is just a tad unfair.

Instead, the pundits could have focused on the overarching revelations of the “Bush doctrine” line of questioning in the first place. The Gibson interview, after all, wasn’t just a test of Palin’s knowledge of current events—“20th Century Realpolitik” next to “Existential Threats,” “Potent Potables,” and “Rhymes with Brainy” on the Jeopardy! board of presidential politics. It was a test of how Palin handles herself under fire, of how she comports herself when facing a modicum of the pressure that will be exerted on the occupant of the Oval Office.

In this respect, Palin failed. Rather than simply admit that she didn’t know the answer to Gibson’s question—or rather than explain her own understanding of what the Bush doctrine may be, if you subscribe to the “nuanced definition” line of logic—Palin simply steered the conversation back to her talking points. This wasn’t dialogue; it was—though Gibson tried his hardest to move everything in another direction—line-coaching.

I don’t care if the Alaska governor has been too busy governing Alaska in the last few years to bone up on recent political history; that’s fair enough. I do care if she’s unwilling to admit when she doesn’t know something. I do care if her impulse is to gloss over her ignorance, rather than face it head-on. I appreciate the pressure she was facing. Still, no president or would-be president knows everything (even, yes, Obama, he of the Ivy League Education and Intellectual Elitism), and no one, really, expects them to. What we’ve learned through trial and much, much, much error, rather, is that chief executives have to have enough confidence in their own intelligence, and their own education, to admit when there’s been a gap in that education. The only thing worse than ignorance is the attempt to ignore that ignorance.

“On television, tone matters as much as content,” Alessandra Stanley notes in her assessment of the Palin interview. That may be true. But content still counts—whether one knows it or not.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.