In Other Words

Is There a Palin Doctrine?

Is There a Palin Doctrine?

Sarah Palin is noteworthy in American public life for many things: her lightning-rod reputation in the press, her wink and gravity-defying hair and wardrobe, her governance of the petrostate Alaska, her folksy half-Canadian patois, her likeness to the comedian Tina Fey, her unmatched ability to rally the neoconservative and cultural-conservative base.

She is not noteworthy for her breadth or depth of political knowledge — nor should she be for her interest in it, as her score-settling-obsessed memoir Going Rogue proves once and for all. Indeed, I read the painfully unserious — morally and politically — memoir in search of some, any, foreign policy, to understand better the politician who nearly was a heartbeat away from the presidency and seems sure to run for executive office again.

My theory, now resoundingly disproven, went something like this. During the campaign, Palin suffered a number of humiliations, her lack of basic knowledge about foreign affairs chief among them. Most famously, during her agonizing interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, she flubbed a question about the six-year-old Bush Doctrine of military preemption and later implied her knowledge of international affairs comes from Alaska’s geographic proximity to Russia.

Since the campaign and her resignation from the governorship, Palin has engaged in just one public appearance and made just a handful of public statements. Nevertheless, these have at least evinced policy coherence entirely missing during the campaign. In a July opinion piece for the Washington Post, she provided a standard conservative argument against a cap-and-trade approach to combating climate change. In a speech in Hong Kong in September, she provided boilerplate libertarian-conservative talking points on the Federal Reserve and Asia policy. Perhaps, I thought, we were witnessing a rare political adolescence, an ideologically incoherent candidate going through the policy furnace and emerging forged. Perhaps Randy Scheunemann, the former foreign-policy advisor to John McCain, and others still working with Palin had helped her crystallize her world view. Perhaps there might be evidence of a nascent Palin Doctrine in Going Rogue.

Perhaps I need to lay off the sauce. The book, as one might have predicted, provides little evidence of any awareness of foreign policy, let alone serious thought about the world and America’s place in it. Take, for instance, Palin’s description of her first meeting with McCain, when he hoisted her onto his ticket and foisted her onto the unsuspecting world. Senior advisor Steve Schmidt — cast as one of the many villains conspiring to keep Palin down throughout the book — spends the initial vetting session grilling the governor on the subjects that might pose the greatest liabilities to the then-losing ticket. The McCain folks mention her daughter’s pregnancy. They ask about her firing of her brother-in-law. And Schmidt starts in on international affairs.

"[He] wanted to know whether I understood the origin of the conflict [in Iraq], the history of the Middle East, and how thirteenth- and fourteenth-century differences had evolved into today’s murderous rivalry," Palin writes. She tells us she did — but she shows us she did not, defensively pushing back on Schmidt for being undercutting and cranky (she later criticizes his diet and describes him, delightfully, as slumping like a "pile of laundry"). She provides no description of any answers she gave to his questions, which I doubt were always so historical in nature.

So too with her assessment of her prep work for her vice presidential debate with Joe Biden, a lion of the senate and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A spate of McCain advisors prepared her for the televised event, with Scheunemann and others providing her with note cards, briefing books, and canned answers on the most important topics. They also overloaded her with — sigh! — too much time in wardrobe, leaving her little time to study up on, say, the United States’ two ongoing wars, or relations with friends like Europe and adversaries like Iran. Ultimately, the McCain advisors insisted that she not attempt to counter Biden or really debate him on substance at all, she writes.

These two passages mark Going Rogue‘s two real engagements with foreign policy, the sole prerogative of the executive and a responsibility of the vice president — though Palin dismisses the subject as "certainly foreign to most governors." The book does delve into military and defense policy, though in a cursory and, at this point, shopworn manner. She mentions her son’s service overseas and her interaction with Alaska troops a few times, for instance, as well as meetings with world leaders, glossed over in a paragraph. She also includes a single, dry 261-word passage on the September 11 attacks, the most crucial foreign-policy event of the past 20 years, explaining what she did that day, how Alaskan forces reacted, and how her family later volunteered at the site. (For contrast, a letter she pens in the voice of her son Trig’s "creator" drags on for 623.)

Rather than admitting her campaign mistakes and showing some newfound heft, Palin defends her old foreign-policy canards. While denying that she ever said "I can see Russia from my house" (that was Fey), she reiterates her zany commentary on Russia’s proximity to Alaska. She notes that some constituents "sent [her] photos of themselves standing on the Alaska shore with Russia visible over their shoulders" — and lauds the "hard-core" athlete Lynne Cox who swam from one to the other across the Bering Strait in 1987. (Isn’t that where they film The Deadliest Catch?)

It is not clear what this has to do with anything. At another point, she writes of trying to describe "frequent Russian incursions by figuratively referring to Vladimir Putin entering our airspace." Count me lost there. Since Alaska’s founding as a state, there has never been a Russian incursion onto its land or into its airspace, figurative or literal, according to the U.S. Armed Forces.

Ultimately, Going Rogue goes rogue as a political memoir, demonstrating what can only be described as a persistent and guileless lack of knowledge of even basic foreign-policy or domestic political issues. It is what we might have expected from Palin. And it is much less than anyone should expect of a candidate for one of the most powerful offices on Earth.