October 1, 2008
To: Gov. Sarah Palin
From: The American Conservative Editors
Re: What Your Tutors Aren’t Telling You
Congratulations on being chosen as John McCain’s running mate. It’s an honor, if a dubious one. As you know, conservatives have reservations about McCain. To your credit, they have few such concerns about you.
You’ve given new life to a party whose brand was bankrupt. You’ve energized a campaign that was embarrassing its own partisans. Across America, crowds flock to see you—not that old man who barely wheezed his way through the primaries. If John McCain wins, he will owe you, as the guy in the undisclosed location says, “Big time.”
Wonder why Middle America finds you irresistible? Maybe they’re big Tina Fey fans. More likely, you remind them of the conservative values they feared lost: faith, family, independence. This impression owes more to who you are than what you’ve done. But at least you keep Obama from cornering the market on hope. Conservatives have faith in you. Don’t fail them as George W. Bush has.
You see what happened: the president’s entire domestic agenda collapsed under the weight of his failed foreign policy. Social Security reform stalled. Pro-lifers became political orphans. And whatever gains Bush’s tax cuts secured were wiped out by record spending. Everything was subordinated to the war on terror.
Conservatives grasping for something to commend give the president points for his judicial picks. But he would have much preferred justices like Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers—toadies whose top qualification was their willingness to give the executive more power.
The party that championed the things you prize—individual liberty, fiscal restraint, and a strong defense—has trampled civil rights, pushed us to the brink of insolvency, and broken our Armed Forces. After eight years of Bush, even diehard Republicans are glad to see him go. You might have noticed the elephant not in the room in St. Paul.
There’s a better way. In fact, you figured it out in the 1996 presidential primary when you sported the flair of the leading pro-life candidate. (Your minders would prefer that we not mention his name. It triggers their Tourette’s.) As you surely know, even beyond social issues, he represents a strain of conservatism that offers a consistent ethic of life and philosophy of limited government. It was not a coincidence that the most pro-life candidate in ’96 was also passionately noninterventionist.
It’s also no coincidence that those who want you to heed the siren call of global democratization care little for traditionalist causes. Recall that second night of the Republican Convention when you were told to blow off a reception in your honor hosted by Phyllis Schlafly so Joe Lieberman could chaperone your debut before the directors of AIPAC. Neoconservatives pay lip service to life, but, as their enthusiasm for Lieberman shows, they have higher priorities. Now they plan to make them yours.
You’ll find the new friends conducting your foreign-policy crash course pleasant enough, if a little dogmatic and a lot condescending. They call you “Project Sarah.” We saw that one staffer at AEI—that mystery monogram on all your briefing books—said you’re “a blank slate.” He added, “She’s going places, and it’s worth going there with her.” That’s how they operate. They don’t implement their agenda themselves. Rather, they impose it on rising star. If things don’t work out, it’s because the Project wasn’t sufficiently committed. (Just ask President Bush.)
Now you’re the latest object of their attention, and you’re probably finding the program a bit confusing. They tell you that the U.S. is fighting “World War IV,” a struggle against “Islamofascism.” We can win, they say, as long as we’re prepared to bomb Iran and build up the national-security establishment at home, just like Reagan did.
Trouble is, your tutors also believe we’re still engaged in “World War III,” the Cold War with Russia. So maybe the Gipper didn’t win that one after all. In fact, neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz chided Reagan for appeasing Moscow. And when terrorists struck the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, Reagan, instead of “staying the course,” withdrew our troops. Your Beltway suitors prescribe the opposite of Reagan’s strategy.
And as they would have it, we’re not only waging World Wars III and IV, we’re still fighting World War II. At least, that’s the way it sounds when Robert Kagan opens a Washington Post op-ed by likening Russia’s conflict with Georgia to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia.
But Russia is not Germany, Georgia is no innocent Czechoslovakia, and Vladimir Putin is not Adolf Hitler—no matter what your guru Randy Scheunemann says. (He probably forgot to tell you that he used to lobby for the government of Georgia.)
Here’s a hint: don’t believe everything you read in the papers, especially if the byline is Kristol or Krauthammer. Russia is not an expansionist, ideological empire. It’s a traditional, semi-authoritarian great power intent on preserving its influence in its own backyard and its prestige on the world stage. That’s why Russia intercedes in the domestic disputes of unruly states on its periphery. Putin balks at Poland hosting our antimissile systems for the same reason we would bristle at Cuba or Mexico receiving Chinese antitank missiles.
With more validity, some of the people whispering in your ear tell you that Moscow wants to corner the European markets for oil and natural gas. And what nefarious end does Putin have in mind? Raising prices and reinforcing Moscow’s political clout, not with nuclear blackmail but with good, old-fashioned economic power. We have plenty of that ourselves (or at least we used to). Putin, far from being a totalitarian ideologue, is an economic nationalist, as the leaders of great powers traditionally have been.
Then there’s the Middle East, where only American arms (and lives) can prevent little Israel from being swept into the sea by Muslim hordes. Surely that’s what AIPAC told you that night you left Phyllis cooling her heels. But again, it isn’t true. Israel has nuclear weapons, for one thing, and can outfight her neighbors even without resort to atom bombs. Israel’s problem isn’t external threat so much as internal security and demographics. When the Jewish state was founded, tens of thousands of Palestinians—Christians as well as Muslims—lost their homes. Palestine was no wide-open Alaskan frontier: when the newcomers moved in, Arabs were moved out, often by force. Terrorism didn’t come to the region with Hamas or Hezbollah; decades earlier groups like the Stern Gang and Irgun used violence to clear the way for Israel’s creation. Nor was Palestinian Authority leader Yassar Arafat the first terrorist to lead a state in the Holy Land. Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir had unclean hands as well.
While your minders probably don’t put much stock in his work, University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape has shown that suicide terrorism develops almost always among occupied peoples. The task before the Israelis is not to defend themselves against aggressive neighbors but to give justice to the Palestinians already in their midst—to suppress terrorism without suppressing civil liberties and human rights, which only leads to more bloodshed. The most helpful role the United States can play is that of impartial mediator in the conflict. There is injustice and suffering on both sides.
No doubt you’ve been told (again and again) that Iran wants to “wipe Israel off the map.” Here’s something to keep in mind: Iran does not have nuclear weapons and is far from attaining them. Ironically, the Bush Doctrine’s pledge that “America is committed to keeping the world’s most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous regimes” makes rogue states like Iran more likely to seek nuclear devices, as a deterrent against pre-emptive U.S. strikes. This is a vicious circle. Instead of boxing Iran into a corner, we should engage with Ahmadinejad, unsavory fellow though he is. Even with nuclear weapons, Iran would not pose an existential threat to Israel, let alone America.
Since you had some difficulties in your oral exam with Charlie Gibson, your new friends will no doubt ramp up their lessons. (For the record, you can scarcely be blamed for fumbling the answer about the Bush Doctrine. Your tutors were clearly reluctant to bring it up, even though the whole scheme was theirs, not Project George’s.)
They may even start assigning you book reports. It will feel like the third grade, except the subjects won’t be charming orphans. Now it’s rogue states against America the Benevolent. Near the top of the list will be An End to Evil by Richard Perle and David Frum. They’d have you think that Muslims will impose Islamic law on America if we don’t go to war with 18 different countries. But you know that a bunch of Muslims can’t make red-blooded, moose-hunting Americans wear burqas. Think what happens if you try to get a book pulled out of the library.
That’s only the beginning of the curriculum. You’ll be handed titles like Present Dangers and The Return of History. Thankfully, just like third grade, you don’t really have to read them. If they ask, just say, “The enemies of freedom won’t be appeased. We must stand firm, like Churchill.”
Meanwhile, we suggest sneaking a look at The Limits of Power by Andrew Bacevich. It’s stern stuff, but he gets to the point: America can’t spend money it doesn’t have, beat everyone up, and expect to stay healthy, wealthy, and wise. If you want a good book on how America screwed up in Iraq, there is Fiasco by Thomas Ricks. You said some nice things about Ron Paul during the primary. He gave Giuliani a list of books that might be worth your time.
You’ll have to keep your extracurriculars quiet. We know how these things work. Since he helped you break into the big leagues, you have to toe McCain’s line. But the outgoing administration has shown us how powerful a veep can be. If you go all the way, President McCain will be in your debt. (If he forgets, ask him how many rallies he held while you were home in Alaska. He wisely opted not to deliver speeches in phone booths.) Don’t leave your maverick spirit on the campaign trail.
Despite all the briefing books being thrown at you, you know your own mind—and you realize that the neoconservative agenda doesn’t square with your worldview. You prize localism, their vision is grandiose. You value fiscal discipline, neocons will ruin the country to finance endless war. You honor life, and they think nothing of killing hundreds of thousands in the service of ideology. But they’ll tell you this alien vision—imported from the Left—is coherent and conservative.
It is neither, but your supporters are both. They’ve turned against this war and definitely don’t want another. Yet your running mate does. Perhaps you’ve noticed that his interest in domestic policy pales alongside his foreign-policy ambitions. Or maybe you caught his virtuoso performance of “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.”
You surely see that the Bush policies have come to a dead end. If the millions poised to vote for you wanted four more years, the president’s approval rating wouldn’t be 25 percent. This isn’t because Republicans dislike Bush personally or disagree with his positions on energy and taxes. It’s because they know that his main legacy—the Iraq War—is a disaster.
Thankfully, they don’t think you’re like him. They see in you someone like themselves—a patriot and a mother. The Middle Americans waiting hours to hear you speak don’t want the United States to be defeated, and they don’t want Iraq to be a haven for al-Qaeda—something it never was before the invasion. They are pleased that the surge has made it more possible to leave because they don’t want to send their boys back for a third or fourth tour. They want America to come home—not because she’s weak but because she’s wise. They hope that you are, too.