Saturday, September 13, 2008

Wingnut Postmodernism

Various wingnuts have responded to Sarah Palin’s difficulty in answering Charlie Gibson’s question about the meaning of the Bush doctrine by claiming that the term has no fixed meaning, and that her response was thus correct.

The argument at the heart of Charles Krauthammer’s claims and those of Bill Dyer on Hugh Hewitt’s website are as follows:

Anyone who criticizes Sarah Palin, then, for asking Charlie Gibson to be more specific about the "Bush Doctrine" is trying to mislead you in at least two ways:

They're pretending that the term "Bush Doctrine" has a single clear, unambiguous meaning that anyone who follows national affairs ought to have immediately recognized. It doesn't...

They're pretending that because Gov. Palin didn't immediately try to guess which of several plausible meanings Gibson meant to give that term, but instead asked for clarification, she therefore must have been unprepared to discuss any of them...

If they had bothered to look, even the could have cured Josh Marshall, Greg Sargent, or Andrew Sullivan of their illusion that there's a single, simple meaning to the term "Bush Doctrine.

Let’s look at the first claim—that there’s no single meaning to the term.

First, a chronology of the various pronouncements, culled from the Krauthammer and Dyer posts:

  • Krauthammer, June 2001: unilateral withdrawal from signed treaties and rejection of the Kyoto protocol.

  • Bush address to special session of Congress, 9/30/01: States harboring or supporting terrorists will be treated as terrorists

  • Bush commencement address, West Point, 6/1/02: Rejection of containment & deterrence in favor of preemptive use of force

  • 2002 State of the Union address: Preemptive use of force

  • National Security Strategy paper, 9/02: preemptive use of force

  • Norman Podhoretz in 2006: “a rejection of cultural relativism and a willingness to use terms like "good" and "evil" more assertively”

  • Thomas Donnelly, 1/31/03: aggressive promotion of democracy based on the assumption of overwhelming U.S. global power

Clearly, there are a lot of different definitions here. But Krauthammer’s assertion that he’s an expert on the subject because he was first to coin the term, coupled with the date of the coinage, raised my eyebrows. The Monroe Doctrine was articulated by Monroe; the Truman Doctrine, by Truman. How did Krauthammer become the self-appointed Adjudicator of Things of Historical Importance? By racing to apply a label to an orientation, then making as much noise about it as possible. Similarly, Norman Podhoretz and Thomas Donnelly determine that their own pseudo-intellectual hobby horses are essential parts of this bold new doctrine. Holy presumptuousness, Batman!

Hubris aside, it is true that all of the above are elements of Bush’s approach to foreign policy (and in the case of Podhoretz’s wish list, his other policies as well). But how many of them are unique to Bush, justifying their inclusion in a definition of a specific doctrine bearing the name of that Great Man of History?

The principles above that were articulated by Bush are (1) treatment as terrorists of states harboring or supporting terrorists; and (2) rejection of containment & deterrence in favor of preemptive use of force. The former is novel, prior U.S. foreign policy doctrines having been formulated in contexts not including international terrorism of the sort we experienced on 9/11. The latter, while unique in the fact of its overt expression, was always an implicit part of U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps the most radical thing about it is not so much the statement itself, but the implications attached to it due to the “first the sentence, then the evidence” approach taken by the Bush administration to pre-war intelligence on Iraq. In short, the Bush administration’s contempt for intellectual rigor and its self-righteousness, coupled with their extreme bellicosity, have led everyone but their remaining acolytes deeply mistrustful of their intentions.

As Jules Tygiel and J. Peter Scoblic have pointed out, all the other positions above are consistent with right wing ideology since the 1950s. And contra Dyer, Reagan didn’t engage in rollback. He talked about it, just as Eisenhower had. In fact, as Scoblic points out, Reagan, being deeply ignorant of the nature of nuclear weapons and the strategies of containment, had adopted an aggressive posture towards the Soviet Union that led us to the brink of nuclear war in 1983. It was only after Reagan was informed of what had almost happened (the Soviets believed, based on Reagan’s public statements, massive military spending and changes in U.S. force postures during a massive U.S. global war game that we were about to launch a first strike against them and scrambled their bombers), that he realized the dangerous course he was on and reversed it, leading to the meetings with Gorbachev that led to an agreement to reduce nuclear arms. In short, it was abandonment of the posture dictated by right wing ideology that led to success.

Be that as it may, it is certainly true that most people who follow the news will likely respond, when asked the question posed to Palin, by mentioning the notion of preemptive war. That is because, despite its having long been an implicit part of U.S. foreign policy, the Bush administration made it explicit—and did so in the context of the drumbeat leading to the invasion of Iraq, placing it foremost in the consciousness of the politically engaged portion of the public. But given that the common sense popular understanding of the term is the one, by definition, with the widest currency, and given that the interview with Palin on a major TV network was obviously aimed at the general public, why should it seem unreasonable to anyone that the popular understanding of the term was the one under discussion? Certainly Palin didn’t attempt to reach for more scholarly definitions of any of the other items under discussion during the interview—why expect her to do so conveniently on one for which she so clearly had difficulty giving an answer?

That various wingnuts put forth a shifting collection of meanings for the term (some of which, as previously noted, they conveniently assigned themselves), is clearly a gambit to claim, as they do implicitly, that Sarah Palin’s inability to answer the question posed to her clearly and coherently is not a sign that she might be —heaven forbid that we should notice the obvious, because to criticize her at all is, for some heretofore unexplained reason, sexist—unqualified for the office she seeks. Nice try.

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