Hirsh: A Foreign-Policy Crash Course for Palin

Enough already. When it comes to Sarah Palin, we need to get beyond Troopergate, Bridgegate and, above all, Daughtergate. Can we dabble in substance for a moment? Palin's experience in domestic policy—from energy issues to managing budgets—is fairly well-established. There is a record to judge. But when it comes to foreign affairs, she is unmolded clay. Even those who follow Alaska politics closely say they have no idea what Palin thinks about the world. "She has no experience in foreign policy, other than meeting trade delegations" from Russia and Asian countries, said Gerald McBeath, a University of Alaska political scientist who praises her first two years as governor and calls her a "quick study." Adds McBeath: "We are a very parochial state. Our campaigns focus almost exclusively on state issues."

The problem that Palin—and the American electorate—face is that if the GOP ticket prevails, she will be thrust into the most complex foreign-policy landscape in memory. American influence is waning, and Washington is being outmaneuvered by diplomatic initiatives from Qatar to France to China. And by the time George W. Bush leaves office, 138 days from now, he is unlikely to have resolved any of the festering crises—Pakistan and Afghanistan, relations with Russia Iran's nuclear program, Middle East peace, North Korea—on his watch; he will leave them in the lap of the next president. (Ironically enough, stabilizing and withdrawing from Iraq may prove to be the easiest problem his successor faces.)

There is every reason to expect that Palin would have time to learn at John McCain's side if she becomes veep. "One of the things this reveals to me is that John McCain believes he's in excellent health," jokes Philip Zelikow, Condi Rice's former senior counselor, who is now a sometime advisor to the McCain camp. But what if she doesn't? What if, God forbid, this oldest of newly inaugurated presidents suffers a recurrence of melanoma or some other ailment in his first year and is forced to invoke the 25th amendment, handing things over to Palin? After all, McCain himself alluded several times to the age issue as a factor in his veep pick.

Palin is now cramming on foreign affairs under the able guidance of Steve Biegun, the former executive secretary of the Bush National Security Council and, by most accounts, a smart and experienced pragmatist. But college-style cramming produces a rather shallow pool of knowledge, and the worst global problems that America's next leaders will face run very deep. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, former U.N. envoy Richard Holbrooke wrote that the next president will "inherit a more difficult opening-day set of international problems than any of his predecessors have since at least the end of World War II." Zelikow, for one, says he doesn't completely agree the challenges are "more difficult, but they are more complex."

Start with how interconnected so many of today's crises are, and that "moral clarity"—to invoke Bush's famous phrase—will hardly be useful in resolving them. Take Russia, for example. McCain is, by instinct, a hardliner on Vladimir Putin's Russia, especially since the Georgia invasion, and he anticipated Moscow's revanchist hunger for a new sphere of influence. McCain also stands firmly with the new democracies of the former Soviet bloc. But that's no prescription for a policy: it's just the start of understanding the problem. First, anyone who studies Russia knows that it has a centuries-old interconnected history with Georgia and Ukraine, and that it is eager to re-emerge on the world scene as an energy-fueled great power. That new reality must be taken into account. McCain is also someone who believes passionately in shoring up NATO and European alliances—and the Western Europeans especially want to take a much softer line on Moscow, from whom they buy energy. If McCain is to solve Iran's runaway development of its nuclear program—another huge crisis that would land squarely on his desk—he needs Russian and especially European cooperation. The same goes for nuclear arms reduction and cooperation on other weapons of mass destruction. Biegun, McCain's Russia expert, was instrumental in a major speech the GOP candidate gave in late May calling for radical reductions in nuclear arms with Moscow. That view may change post-Georgia. But McCain at least has some command of the nuances of handling big powers: how hard to push Russia and how much to give. Palin will need far longer than four months to get there.

The unraveling situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan—where Al Qaeda-linked militants are expanding their safe haven—is another many-sided problem of brain-crushing complexity. Pakistani authorities on Wednesday accused U.S. troops of attacking across the border in South Waziristan, part of the tribal belt where officials suspect Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are hiding. If true, it would be the most dramatic evidence to date of how far Washington is willing to go in exacerbating relations with its faltering ally in Islamabad. Relations between Washington and Pakistan are now worse than at almost any time since 9/11. In large part this is because of the Pakistanis' equivocal support of U.S. counter-terror efforts. But behind the quarrel also lies a long history of Pakistani and Afghan grievances with U.S. treatment of their region that must be taken into account before decisions can be made. Even McCain, a strong and early backer of the shift in attention to Iraq, echoed Barack Obama recently in calling for more U.S. brigades to be diverted to Afghanistan. The complicated new strategic partnership with India also plays into this, since that country has riled the Pakistani military no end. How long will it take for Palin to master the delicate web of military and diplomatic initiatives here?

The list goes on. In the Mideast, it is by now almost certain that the "Annapolis process" launched last fall by Bush and Rice—intended to produce a Palestinian state—will achieve at most a broad framework, especially now that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has vowed to resign. Explosive issues that doomed the decade-long Oslo peace process remain to be brokered by Washington and negotiated by "two" sides that are increasingly fractured, particularly with the Palestinians split hopelessly between Fatah and Hamas. The Israelis, meanwhile, are dabbling with Bashar Assad of Syria as part of a complicated strategy to isolate Iran. Lifetimes have been spent trying to get to the bottom of these issues. Four months is just not enough.

And these are just the most immediate crises. McCain has made the threat of Islamist extremism his main template for foreign policy, calling it the "transcendental challenge" of the 21st Century. But at least he is steeped in all these other issues; in the hands of an amateur, such a simplistic idea of the world could be a dangerous thing. Beyond that, says Zelikow, "we don't have a good, well-understood template for interpreting and guiding our policies. ... I don't think the Bush administration has successfully put in place an overarching sense of America's purpose in the world." (Even many alumnae of the Bush administration, like Zelikow, believe that the Bush's pro-democracy doctrine has not sufficed). Asked what he would focus on if he were tutoring Palin, Zelikow said: "There are three things. One, ongoing wars. You just gotta do that. Two, is major global trends like energy, the environment, and tensions of globalization confronting self-determination—do countries want to join the world or fortify against it? And third, you've to prepare her for trivia questions that some reporters will want to throw at her. It will be global "Jeopardy," the vice presidential edition."

Here's wishing Sarah Palin the best of luck, and John McCain the best of health.

Join the Discussion