Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin seemed puzzled Thursday when ABC News anchorman Charles Gibson asked her whether she agreed with the “Bush doctrine.”
“In what respect, Charlie?” she replied.
Intentionally or not, the Republican vice presidential nominee was on to something. After a brief exchange, Gibson explained that he was referring to the idea – enshrined in a September 2002 White House strategy document – that the United States may act militarily to counter a perceived threat emerging in another country. But that is just one version of a purported Bush doctrine advanced over the past eight years.
Peter Feaver, who worked on the Bush national security strategy as a staff member on the National Security Council, said he has counted as many as seven distinct Bush doctrines. They include the president's second-term “freedom agenda”; the notion that states that harbor terrorists should be treated no differently than terrorists themselves; the willingness to use a “coalition of the willing” if the United Nations does not address threats; and the one Gibson was talking about – the doctrine of pre-emptive war.
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Liberals said Palin's answer was yet another case of her thin grasp on foreign policy, while conservatives replied that she handled herself well by putting the question back on Gibson.
After she asked Gibson to clarify what he meant, the anchor pressed Palin on whether the United States has “a right to make a pre-emptive strike against another country if we feel that country might strike us.”
“Charlie,” Palin replied, “if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend.”
The campaign of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama directed reporters to online commentary about the exchange. “What Sarah Palin revealed is that she has not been interested enough in world affairs to become minimally conversant with the issues,” journalist James Fallows wrote on TheAtlantic.com. “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.”
Conservatives ridiculed such reasoning. “What a bunch of nonsense,” Andrew McCarthy wrote on National Review Online. “Peanut gallery denizens like me, who don't have states to run and who follow this stuff very closely, disagree intensely among ourselves about what the Bush Doctrine is.”
Outside foreign policy experts offered different reads on the question. Richard Holbrooke, who served key posts in both the Clinton and Carter administrations, said he saw the 2002 National Security Strategy of the White House as the critical statement of a Bush doctrine. (The White House staff member who helped draft the 2002 document, Stephen Biegun, now serves as Palin's foreign policy adviser.)
According to Holbrooke, “the core point is that the Bush people were extremely proud of it and they presented it as a historical breakthrough.”
But one of the drafters of that document demurred at investing the statement with too much weight. “I actually never thought there was a Bush doctrine,” said Philip Zelikow, who later served as State Department counselor under Secretary or State Condoleezza Rice. “Indeed, I believe the assertion that there is such a doctrine lends greater coherence to the administration's policies than they deserve.”