The Palin interview

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It is embarrassing to have to spell this out, but for the record let me explain why Gov. Palin's answer to the "Bush Doctrine" question -- the only part of the recent interview I have yet seen over here in China -- implies a disqualifying lack of preparation for the job.

Not the mundane job of vice president, of course, which many people could handle. Rather the job of potential Commander in Chief and most powerful individual on earth.

The spelling-out is lengthy, but I've hidden most of it below the jump.

Each of us has areas we care about, and areas we don't. If we are interested in a topic, we follow its development over the years. And because we have followed its development, we're able to talk and think about it in a "rounded" way. We can say: Most people think X, but I really think Y. Or: most people used to think P, but now they think Q. Or: the point most people miss is Z. Or: the question I'd really like to hear answered is A.

Here's the most obvious example in daily life: Sports Talk radio.
 

Mention a name or theme -- Brett Favre, the Patriots under Belichick, Lance Armstrong's comeback, Venus and Serena -- and anyone who cares about sports can have a very sophisticated discussion about the ins and outs and myth and realities and arguments and rebuttals.

People who don't like sports can't do that. It's not so much that they can't identify the names -- they've heard of Armstrong -- but they've never bothered to follow the flow of debate. I like sports -- and politics and tech and other topics -- so I like joining these debates. On a wide range of other topics -- fashion, antique furniture,  the world of restaurants and fine dining, or (blush) opera -- I have not been interested enough to learn anything I can add to the discussion.  So I embarrass myself if I have to express a view.

What Sarah Palin revealed is that she has not been interested enough in world affairs to become minimally conversant with the issues. Many people in our great land might have difficulty defining the "Bush Doctrine" exactly. But not to recognize the name, as obviously was the case for Palin, indicates not a failure of last-minute cramming but a lack of attention to any foreign-policy discussion whatsoever in the last seven years.

Two details in Charles Gibson's posing of the question were particularly telling. One was the potentially confusing way in which he first asked it. On the page, "the Bush Doctrine" looks different from "the Bush doctrine." But when hearing the question Palin might not have known whether Gibson was referring to the general sweep of Administration policy -- doctrine with small d -- or the rationale that connected 9/11 with the need to invade Iraq, the capital-D Doctrine. So initial confusion would be understandable -- as if a sports host asked about Favre's chances and you weren't sure if he meant previously with the Packers or with the Jets. Once Gibson clarified the question, a person familiar with the issue would have said, "Oh, if we're talking about the strategy that the President and Condoleezza Rice began laying out in 2002...."  There was no such flash of recognition.

The other was Gibson's own minor mis-statement. American foreign policy has long recognized the concept of preemptive action:  if you know somebody is just about to attack you, there's no debate about the legitimacy of acting first. (This is like "shooting in self-defense.") The more controversial part of The Bush Doctrine was the idea of preventive war: acting before a threat had fully emerged, on the theory that waiting until it was fully evident would mean acting too late.

Gibson used the word "preemptively" -- but if a knowledgeable person had pushed back on that point ("Well, preemption was what John F. Kennedy had in mind in acting against the imminent threat of Soviet missiles in Cuba"), Gibson would certainly have come back to explain the novelty of the "preventive war" point. Because he knows the issue, a minor mis-choice of words wouldn't get in the way of his real intent.

Sarah Palin did not know this issue, or any part of it. The view she actually expressed -- an endorsement of "preemptive" action -- was fine on its own merits. But it is not the stated doctrine of the Bush Administration, it is not the policy her running mate has endorsed, and it is not the concept under which her own son is going off to Iraq.

How could she not know this? For the same reason I don't know anything about European football/soccer standings, player trades, or intrigue. I am not interested enough. And she evidently has not been interested enough even to follow the news of foreign affairs during the Bush era.

A further point. The truly toxic combination of traits GW Bush brought to decision making was:

1) Ignorance
2) Lack of curiosity
3) "Decisiveness"

That is, he was not broadly informed to begin with (point 1). He did not seek out new information (#2); but he nonetheless prided himself (#3) on making broad, bold decisions quickly, and then sticking to them to show resoluteness.

We don't know for sure about #2 for Palin yet -- she could be a sponge-like absorber of information. But we know about #1 and we can guess, from her demeanor about #3.   Most of all we know something about the person who put her in this untenable role.
    

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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