Sarah Palin and Charlie Gibson Got the Bush Doctrine Wrong: It's Preventive War, Not Pre-emptive

The Bush Doctrine is of preventive war, not pre-emptive war—not that Sarah Palin had a clue either way.


For the record, Charles Gibson didn't get the Bush Doctrine right either. But at least, unlike Sarah Palin, he had an idea of what he was talking about (a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for the last six years).

If you haven't yet seen it, Gibson asked Palin if she agreed with the Bush Doctrine. She tried to dance around the question, apparently not having a bloody clue what he was talking about, finally spouting a talking point about ridding the world of Islamic extremism.

(Then she gave a gibberish answer that was mercifully not included on the ABC broadcast: "I agree that a president's job, when they swear in their oath to uphold our Constitution, their top priority is to defend the United States of America. I know that John McCain will do that and I, as his vice president, families we are blessed with that vote of the American people and are elected to serve and are sworn in on January 20, that will be our top priority is to defend the American people.")

Finally Gibson tried to be merciful by cluing her in to what he was talking about:

GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a pre-emptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?

Actually, it's preventive war, not pre-emptive. There's a key difference: Pre-emptive war is a long-accepted, noncontroversial practice—if an enemy is clearly massing and about to attack you, you get to strike them pre-emptively. Imagine on the playground the class bully (who has beaten up your friends already) comes up to you, repeatedly threatens to hit you, and then cocks his fist. It's straight self-defense and is a basic tenet of international law.

But the Bush Doctrine is one of preventive war: Attacking another country in order to prevent them from becoming a threat at some nebulous point down the line. To return to the playground analogy, it's as if you hauled off and socked someone because they looked at you funny—that odd look could be a signal that at some point in the future they're going to hit you. Better safe than sorry. But now you're the bully.

Pre-emptive war is generally accepted. The Bush Doctrine of preventive war was controversial and revolutionary. While Bush and his cronies repeatedly conflated the two concepts by referring to his new scheme as "pre-emptive" rather than "preventive," they are not the same.

And Palin demonstrated her final ignorance of the whole discussion with the answer she eventually gave Gibson:

Charlie, 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.

Well yes. But that wasn't the question.