Viewpoint: Sarah Palin's Foreign Policy Follies

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CBS News, HO / AP

Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, left, walks by the U.N. with CBS anchor Katie Couric on Sept. 24

It takes a hard heart not to like Sarah Palin. She has a winning personal story. She can be poised, charming and funny. As she showed at the Republican National Convention, her ability to deliver set-piece speeches — a big part of the job for all politicians, but especially Presidents — is considerable. On balance, she's probably an asset to John McCain. But we should stop pretending that she is ready now or will be ready anytime in the foreseeable future to be Commander in Chief.

I reached this conclusion after watching the foreign-policy portion of her disastrous Sept. 25 interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric. A number of commentators, including the Atlantic's James Fallows and Slate's Christopher Beam, have echoed Beam's assessment that Palin resembled a "high schooler trying to BS her way through a book report," which is an insult to both high schoolers and BS. Palin's answers were hesitant, convoluted and, at times — like when she appeared to suggest that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might be preparing a one-man airborne invasion of Alaska — downright loony.

But the more worrisome responses were the ones that betrayed her lack of curiosity about current events and reliance on bumper-sticker wisdom over complex thoughts. There were moments, in fact, in which you wondered whether she had been paying any meaningful attention to the world outside Alaska before McCain picked her as his running mate a month ago. (See photos of Sarah Palin on the campaign trail here.)

Set aside her strange imagining of Putin's flight path and her failure to remember that her tutor Henry Kissinger actually supports talking to Iran (which McCain also forgot during Friday's presidential debate). Although less YouTube-able, two other moments in the CBS interview stood out as even more troubling. The first was when Couric asked Palin whether she believes that "the Pakistani government is protecting al-Qaeda within its borders." This was Palin's response:

"I don't believe that new President [Asif Ali] Zardari has that mission at all. But no, the Pakistani people also, they want freedom. They want democratic values to be allowed in their country, also. They understand the dangers of terrorists having a stronghold in regions of their country, also. And I believe that they, too, want to rid not only their country, but the world, of violent Islamic terrorists."

There's nothing inherently incorrect about that answer: Zardari, whose wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by al-Qaeda, isn't in league with Osama bin Laden, and the vast majority of Pakistanis oppose terrorism. The trouble is that the same could be said of nearly every country in the world. But anyone who has picked up a newspaper in the past few months knows that Pakistan is now home to al-Qaeda's top leaders and serves as the staging ground for the dramatic increase in suicide bombings in Afghanistan — and that elements of its security services are indisputably aiding that cause. Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, said this week that "the murder, killing, destruction, dishonoring and insecurity in Afghanistan is carried out by the intelligence administration of Pakistan, its military intelligence institutions." Just last month, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, said, "Do I believe there has been some complicity on the part of organizations such as the [Inter-Services Intelligence] over time in Pakistan? I believe there has been." In fact, it's precisely the Pakistani government's unwillingness to go after militants along the Pakistan-Afghan border that has prompted the Bush Administration to authorize raids by U.S. commandos into Pakistani territory.

In short, most foreign policy hands — including members of the current Administration — would have given Couric the exact opposite answer that Palin did. If U.S. officials once praised Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terror, they almost never do now. But Palin doesn't seem to have noticed.

Then there was her pained, and painful, response to Couric's questions about the Bush "freedom agenda" — the goal of spreading democracy in the Islamic world. Predictably, Palin repeated standard Bush platitudes about making "every effort possible to help spread democracy for those who desire freedom, independence, respect for equality. That is the whole goal here in fighting terrorism. It's not just to keep the people safe, but to be able to usher in democratic values and ideals around this, around the world." That theory, though, has been discredited by the debacle in Iraq and years of inconvenient outcomes in the Middle East, in which elections have brought to power parties that are more extreme, not less. As a result, the Bush Administration abandoned its lofty talk about transforming the region roughly, oh, three years ago. Couric pressed Palin on this:

Couric: What happens if the goal of democracy doesn't produce the desired outcome? In Gaza, the U.S. pushed hard for elections, and Hamas won.

Palin: Yeah, well, especially in that region, though, we have to protect those who do seek democracy and support those who seek protections for the people who live there. What we're seeing in the last couple of days here in New York is a President of Iran, Ahmadinejad, who would come on our soil and express such disdain for one of our closest allies and friends, Israel ... and we're hearing the evil that he speaks, and if hearing him doesn't allow Americans to commit more solidly to protecting the friends and allies that we need, especially there in the Mideast, then nothing will.

Couric's question was beyond difficult — it has been the most vexing question facing U.S. policymakers over the past seven years. What do you do when democracy produces results you don't like? There's no good answer, but there are many ways to grasp at one. Palin could have said that elections are only one component of democracy; that bringing extremist groups into the political process helps to moderate their behavior; that extremists tend to lose support once in power, because they don't know how to govern. She could even have said, "Those are the breaks — we don't get to choose."

Instead, she changed the subject to the threat Iran poses to Israel. Why did she do this? Was it because she didn't want to acknowledge that democracy sometimes produces undesirable results? Did she calculate that, since Gaza shares a border with Israel, she could use it as an opportunity to turn the discussion to Iran, a subject that John McCain and Barack Obama disagree on? Or did she just not know what Couric was talking about?

If she didn't, that's understandable. Most Americans are not particularly interested in the nuances of politics in Pakistan or the Middle East. But we should expect our leaders to be fluent in at least the basics of foreign policy. So far, Palin is still struggling for words.

(See photos of Sarah Palin's rise to power here.)