Heartthrob, Heartbeat

Posted January 5, 2008

Categories: Articles

John McCain’s choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin for his vice-presidential candidate – an American heartthrob for the position one heartbeat away from the presidency – is the perfect expression of an anti-foreign policy. While Barack Obama was desperate to shore up his standing by pulling a foreign policy wonk onto his ticket, McCain was eager to do just the opposite. Obama was thinking global, McCain acting local.

Foreign policy, after all, is a problem for the Republicans. Who wants to be reminded of the Iraq mess, except in the vaguest, most patriotic way? Or that a war with Iran looms? Or that North Korea acquired a nuclear bomb during Bush’s tenure? Or that the globe kept warming, torture continued, and food/oil prices rose to new levels under Bush the Lesser?Sarah Palin is a foreign policy cipher. Instead of an Iraq policy, she has a son about to deploy there, which is supposed to end the conversation rather than start one. She doesn’t believe that global warming is manmade, another conversation-stopper. The website On the Issues records no policy positions on foreign policy. None. Zip. Big fat zero.

Confronted with a dead parrot – remember the Monty Python skit? – the Republicans insist that the animal is simply stunned. According to Cindy McCain, who is not exactly an international affairs wonkette, Palin has a foreign policy because she was a governor of a state near Russia. Former UN ambassador John Bolton, the deadly Joker of the diplomatic world, has astutely added that Alaska also borders Canada. Forget the embarrassing fact that Palin has never actually visited nearby Russia. And while Canada is indeed a different country – not simply a large suburb of Vermont as some would have it – our northern neighbor is not exactly foreign policy challenge number one. And since when was foreign policy by proximity a valid credential, any more than growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts automatically confers a Harvard doctorate on a person?

It’s tempting to dismiss Sarah Palin as just another pretty face. By choosing her, McCain turns the ticket into the classic crowd pleaser: the homecoming king and queen. McCain was a pretty good wrestler; Palin was a star basketball player. And they both have classic American good looks. The May-December twist, meanwhile, reinforces the message of so many Hollywood romances that have paired Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, and other rugged old timers with beauties half their age. Don’t forget that a portion of Obama’s appeal also derives from his looks: consider the over one million Google hits for “Obama, handsome.” We can fall back on more acceptable words like “telegenic” and “presence.” But the bottom line is that many Americans vote for the U.S. president in much the same way that they voted for class president back in grade school.

Palin is not, however, just another pretty face. She is a sophisticated political infighter with a knack for disarming her opponents and, if necessary, infuriating her ideological compatriots (therein lies the affinity with McCain). And although she hasn’t articulated any formal foreign policy positions, her positions have clear foreign policy implications. Her unswerving faith in the free market will translate into a faith in the export of such principles abroad. Her positions on the environment – supporting corporate interests and opening up protected areas to drilling – will translate into a utilitarian approach to the global environment. Her support for a “strong military” will translate into more money for the Pentagon.

So, with Sarah Palin, McCain has gotten his cake and eaten it too. She has no foreign policy positions that will draw attention to what should be the weakest part of the Republican platform. And yet she has a stealth foreign policy that, once water is added after Election Day, will complement McCain’s new “Neocon Lite.” The Republican presidential candidate knows that Palin’s good looks will, like a magician’s conjuring trick, distract the audience from the crucial matters. We are entranced at our peril.

Extraordinary Mistakes

One of the Bush administration’s most profound violations of international legal practice and U.S. law has been extraordinary rendition. Under this program, which in fact started during the Clinton years, the Bush administration seized suspects abroad and sent them to third countries where they were interrogated and tortured. In Extraordinary Rendition, Extraordinary Mistake, Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Sangitha McKenzie Millar describes the origins of this program, its devastating impact, and the way we can begin to roll it back.

“Ultimately, the U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition relies on disingenuous diplomatic assurances and can result in the torture and prolonged detention of innocent individuals,” she concludes. “It also tarnishes our reputation in the international community and undermines American national interests by alienating our allies and weakening counterterrorism efforts. Accordingly, the next administration needs to definitively and publicly end the extraordinary rendition program.”As FPIF contributor Roger Bybee writes, Obama is on the verge of making an extraordinary mistake of his own. Many media commentators have warned Obama not to cave into union demands by rejecting free trade agreements. “However it might please the pundits who overwhelmingly support unfettered free trade, for Obama to drink the ‘free trade’ Kool-Aid would be toxic and could cripple his presidential bid. Unfettered ‘free trade’ is immensely unpopular with the American electorate,” he writes in Why Obama Shouldn’t Cave on Trade, “and represents a ruinous economic policy that has decimated working families and industrial communities by gutting the nation’s manufacturing base.”

On a lighter note, I send a Postcard from…Rome about how a medieval cheese producer in the middle of Rome exemplifies the Italian approach to food policy. “Somehow it doesn’t seem odd at all for Rome to have a sheep farm in its very midst,” I write. “Italy, after all, is the home of the Slow Food movement. It’s also proud of its many local products such as Parma ham and balsamic vinegar from Modena. Every neighborhood in Rome supports a farmers market selling local produce. Nothing could be slower or more local than ricotta produced on a medieval Roman farm.”

FPIF, September 2, 2008

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