Listening to Sarah

By James Zogby

Media commentators were breathless in anticipation of the vice presidential debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin. Given Palin’s repeated gaffes in television interviews, there was an expectation that she might self-destruct in this nationally televised event.

This did not occur. Instead, Palin followed a disciplined debate strategy: she did not answer most of the questions asked (at one point she announced, "I’m not going to answer the questions the way the moderator or my opponent would like me to") and, instead, delivered a series of prepared mini-speeches to fill time.

Palin was friendly and, somewhat disturbingly, flirtatious (with winks, etc) and folksy, sprinkling her answers with colloquialisms ("doggone," "you betcha," etc). Because her pat speeches had been prepared in advance, she didn’t stumble into gibberish, as she had in her earlier interviews, and appeared overall to be competent enough to please her supporters. I had expected as much.

I had noted before the debate that in watching and evaluating Sarah Palin’s debate performance, it would be important not to focus exclusively on what she doesn’t know about critical foreign policy issues. More useful, I believed, would be filtering out what she does know.

Palin began this process with largely a blank slate on foreign policy. One could dismiss her claims of having learned about international affairs by living, as she does, between two foreign countries. The geography is undeniable; but living across the Bering Strait from the frozen wastelands of Russia’s Siberia, or across a land border from Canada’s Yukon, provides more a sense of isolation than it does foreign policy experience.

Similarly, Palin’s sole foreign trip, last year, to US military installations in Germany and Kuwait (and stepping one quarter mile into Iraq) to visit with members of Alaska’s National Guard may have helped the governor better understand the needs of her constituents deployed abroad but would not have left her better informed about Kuwait or Iraq. And it is questionable how much useful information she culled from her speed-dating exercise with world leaders in Manhattan (other than the sorry fact that some of them could be fawning or downright embarrassingly sexist).

In selecting Palin, McCain’s operatives understood her obvious assets: solid "Christian" conservative credentials, unlimited ambition, effective stage presence and, yes, the fact that she is a woman. But recognising her equally obvious weaknesses (primarily a lack of policy — especially foreign policy — credentials), the McCain team sequestered their number two in an effort to give her a crash course in world affairs.

Led by arch neo-conservative and foreign agent lobbyist Randy Scheunemann (who was an ever-present chaperone during Palin’s New York adventure), the team drilled their "quick study" in the ways of the world.

In the interviews that marked brief breaks in Palin’s sequestration, the fruits of their labour have been on display. Much could be learned from her answers in three major interviews. Some of her answers were nearly unintelligible, to be sure, but sifting through the jumbled syntax and incoherent babble revealed her "talking points".

These answers deserve scrutiny, as do the prepared lines she delivered during the debate, because they provide a guide to the worldview of Palin’s handlers, which they hope to advance through her.

Having no independently developed, experience-based foreign affairs knowledge of her own through which to sift this "received knowledge", Palin’s recitation of her lessons revealed a raw and unfiltered neo-conservative view of the world. It is, at times, banal and oversimplified; but it is also, in many ways, perfectly clear.

It is absolutist and Manichean. There is good ("us") and evil ("them"). "We" stand for democracy and the "spirit of freedom that is found in every human heart". Since the clash between good and evil is both desirable and inevitable, "our" role is to bring "our values" to a waiting world and defeat evil. And in this conflict, "our" victory is preordained. Compromise with evil is unthinkable and so traditional forms of diplomacy are to be rejected as a sign of weakness and surrender. (In this worldview, diplomacy means working with those who agree with us, not finding ways to bridge differences with those with whom we disagree.)

Simple? Yes, but also dangerous. This was the worldview embraced by the current administration, especially during its first term. (It is the consequences of this disastrous course that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has worked diligently, if unsuccessfully, to correct.) And despite its many failures, it appears that this hardline neoconservative course is embraced by Palin’s running mate and his advisors.

Now, Palin is no mere pawn. In many ways her Christian fundamentalism has prepared her for her role, since neo- conservatism is but a secularised version of her new faith’s absolutism. But while the theology provides a fit, it is the language and its application to complex world affairs that is new.

And so, while the basic framework (good versus evil, etc) makes sense in Palin’s mind, she is not yet comfortable with the new phrases that have been written on the previously near- blank slate. This is why I say that it is important to listen to what she does say, not how badly she says it. And don’t make fun: be afraid.

-James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute. (Originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly – October 9-15)

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