So Gov. Sarah Palin can speak spontaneously in complete and coherent sentences.
Let’s judge her, then, as we would a presumptively seasoned and competent political leader. By that standard, on issues of foreign policy, she was outgunned by Sen. Joe Biden at every turn.
And more than Sen. Barack Obama, who could have answered some of Sen. John McCain’s charges more forcefully in last week’s debate, Biden made no effort to muffle his fire. When Palin called Obama’s plan for a phased withdrawal from Iraq “a white flag of surrender,” Biden shot back that the plan was identical to the policy of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
When Palin repeated her charge that Obama was “beyond naive” in calling for negotiating with adversaries “without preconditions,” Biden explained what the phrase meant, then noted that it was supported not just by the five former secretaries of state who recently co-authored an endorsement of the idea but by our allies, with whom Palin had just said we needed to work together.
When Palin recited McCain’s line about applying the principles of the Iraqi surge to Afghanistan, Biden (correctly) noted that the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan has said the surge wouldn’t work there. (By the way, it does not bother me at all that Palin referred to Gen. Dave McKiernan as “Gen. McClellan.” We all make mistakes like that now and then.)
Finally, when Biden said the Bush administration’s foreign policy has been an “abject failure,” and proceeded to list the many ways in which that was so, Palin’s only reply was to smile and say, “Enough playing the blame game.” If Obama and Biden talk so much about change, she added (as if this were really a clever point), why do they spend so much time looking backward?
To which Biden replied, with uncharacteristic pith, “Past is prologue.” And so it is. At another point, he noted, “Facts matter.” And so they do.
More to the point, he noted that McCain has never explained how his policies would differ from Bush’s on Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, or Iraq. In other words, even if Palin is right that 2009 is Year Zero, what would she and her No. 1 do differently? She didn’t answer the question, any more than McCain ever has, perhaps because there is no answer.
When Biden was asked what line he would draw in deciding whether to intervene in other countries militarily, he cited two criteria: whether we had the capacity to make a difference and whether the countries in question were committing genocide or harboring terrorists—in which case, he said, they would have forfeited the rights of sovereignty.
Palin replied merely by hailing John McCain as a man “who knows how to win a war, who’s been there.” (McCain has said this about himself as well several times, though, with all due respect for his military record, where’s the proof of this claim? What wars has he won, and what did he do there?)
One might disagree with Biden’s criteria of intervention as excessively expansive, but at least it’s an arguable position. Palin’s reply was a cliché. That sums up her performance as a whole.