Do You Agree with the Charlie Gibson Doctrine?

What is the “Bush Doctrine”? Who can say? But we now know something about the “Charlie Gibson Doctrine”—which might also be called the “Elite Media Doctrine.”

Charlie Gibson was the first member of the mainstream media to interview Sarah Palin, Republican candidate for the Vice Presidency. I’m only guessing here, but I’d say Gibson was worried about how he would appear to his media colleagues during the interview. This was a much-anticipated interview and news people country-wide were overtly jealous of Gibson. So Gibson knew he was being scrutinized, and he knew what was expected of him by the media. They wanted red meat, and they got it in the form of one question in particular. He asked Governor Palin, “Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?”

This is pandering. Why? Because Gibson wanted to please his media buddies. It’s also dirty pool. Why? Because there is no such thing as “the Bush doctrine.” But Charlie Gibson thinks there is. He stated it as follows:

“The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that — the right to preemptive attack of a country that was planning an attack on America?”

Charlie Gibson should be embarrassed, not because he put the candidate on the spot, but because he didn’t know what he was talking about.

Everybody knows that the media would disapprove if Palin answered “yes” to Gibson’s question. You can tell from Gibson’s demeanor that he believed two things: (1) Palin would have to say yes, and (2) if Palin said yes this would cause trouble for the McCain campaign. Remember, Barack Obama’s singular objection to John McCain has been that a vote for McCain would be a vote for a four-year extension of the unpopular presidency of George Bush.

There’s only one other possibility, and that is that Palin wouldn’t know what to say because she didn’t know what the Bush doctrine is. That’s pretty cynical, though, and an upright media professional would simply have stated the so-called doctrine, without attributing it uniquely to President Bush, and asked if the candidate agreed with it. Imagine how things would have seemed if Charlie Gibson had asked his question that way, without trying to bait Sarah Palin into an uneasy association with a currently unpopular president. Palin could have said yes. No harm, no foul. Next question.

I know some astute observers believe that Sarah Palin faltered, ever so slightly, in response to Gibson. But there’s another way to interpret her response. Perhaps Gibson should be grateful that Sarah Palin answered graciously. The presupposition of his question was false, and yet Charlie Gibson believed it. Palin was forbearing. She did not confront him about his naivete.

We should hope that every candidate would answer an undisguised formulation of Gibson’s question in the affirmative, without equivocation or nuance. It would be shameful if a President did not adopt this view.

Teddy Roosevelt accepted it, that’s for sure. So did Abraham Lincoln, and I believe his conduct of the Civil War is evidence of it. Every President during the Cold War held firmly to this view, which is one reason why there was a Cold War.

It’s plausible to suppose that the Monroe Doctrine, stated in James Monroe’s annual message to Congress December 2, 1823, presupposes a similar commitment. Here is a passage from Monroe’s presentation nearly two hundred years ago:

Our policy in regard to Europe, which was adopted at an early stage of the wars which have so long agitated that quarter of the globe, nevertheless remains the same, which is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none. But in regard to those continents circumstances are eminently and conspicuously different. It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness; nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord. It is equally impossible, therefore, that we should behold such interposition in any form with indifference.

There has been some controversy about whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew beforehand of an imminent attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor and deliberately waited for the attack in order to strengthen the grounds for entering the war, which he wanted to do anyway. If the bare suggestion of that possibility is heresy, and beneath the dignity of the President, it is because the so-called “Bush doctrine” is assumed by the American people to be an axiom of American foreign policy.

George Bush, whatever his faults, was right to remind his people that he was duty-bound to protect them from imminent threat with preemptive action. It’s a shame that this required special boldness, especially in the aftermath of 9/11.

Gibson’s question, without its supercilious association with President Bush, ought to be one of the first questions that both Obama and McCain have to answer early in their upcoming debate. Their respective answers could set the tone for the rest of the debate. I wonder what Obama would say. I think we all know what McCain would say.

* * *


This post was inspired by today’s post by Dennis Prager, who writes:

“All the interview did was reconfirm that Republicans running for office run against both their Democratic opponent and the mainstream news media.

“This year it is more obvious than ever. The press’s beatification of Obama is so obvious, so constant (how many covers of Newsweek and Time has Obama been on?) that media credibility even among many non-conservatives has been hurt.

“Let me put this another way. Charlie Gibson showed far greater hostility toward the Republican vice-presidential candidate than Dan Rather did in his interview with Saddam Hussein or Mike Wallace did in his interview with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”

Who can disagree?

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

2 Responses to Do You Agree with the Charlie Gibson Doctrine?

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Emjay (Matt, buddy),

    That bit about Palin’s gracious rejoinder to Gibson was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I think she recognized instantly that it was a gotcha question and that she stumbled a bit.

    I don’t think it matters all that much whether she could make a definite association with the label “Bush Doctrine.” I do believe that Gibson’s question was misleading and rooted in a false assumption that Gibson himself accepted and should not have.

    If I’m not mistaken, “Bush Doctrine” is language invented by Charles Krauthammer for at least four different claims that have defined President Bush’s foreign policy. The terminology has not gained universal acceptance. I think that’s what Palin should have said (a safe gambit, even if she didn’t know what the heck Gibson was talking about) and asked him to be specific so that she could be specific in her answer.

    A more experienced politician, of the Washington type, could probably have pulled this off without detection. That’s the sort of skill you acquire, I would imagine, in the real world of insider politics and media engagement.

    So we have this question to consider. Is Sarah Palin too inexperienced with the media to be a satisfactory VP? I haven’t heard anybody raise this question. But it’s apt. One of her virtues is that she isn’t your professional politician in the cut of beltway give-and-take.

    On the other hand, the media have been unkind to her, and there’s a reason for this. They will play her. And she’s in the awkward position of bringing freshness to national politics without being defined by others as naive.

    How Palin will handle Biden will be interesting. How Biden will handle Palin may be even more interesting.

    I may be the only one in the world who thinks this, but it seems to me that an empty slate candidate whose values and principles are known and known to be sincere may make her the ideal candidate in the current political and geopolitical malaise. She needs to be touch, self-possessed, savvy, a quick study, and all of that. But Palin seems to be all of that and more.

    Every President relies on a team of counselors. What matters more than detailed knowledge at this stage about every possible eventuality is Palin’s capacity to exercise wisdom in situations of great moment that require dependence of counsel, no matter who’s president.

    We should be asking that about the other candidates, both presidential and vice presidential.

    Thanks for your comment. I agree—Palin still hasn’t demonstrated her capacity for the job to the degree needed to gain the support of the American electorate. We’re taking a chance no matter who we elect. That doesn’t mean we have to pick the lesser of two evils, or the strongest of two very weak options. But nothing is certain in this world. And with that in mind, we should elect the team we think we can trust in uncertain times.


  2. emjay says:

    I ask myself, “Matt, do you agree with the Geivett doctrine?” “Self,” I reply, “In what respect?”

    Doug, I think you’re right that Gibson was setting Palin up to fail and that the so-called “Bush Doctrine” is a perfectly defensible piece of foreign policy; pre-emption looks like a reasonable and even necessary extension of just war theory (when the evidence warrants it).

    But I think you’re too generous to Palin in suggesting that she was somehow being kind to Gibson in her reply. It seemed pretty clear to me–and I have a huge crush on Governor Palin–that she had no idea what the Bush Doctrine even *might be*. That was a bit troubling, and no matter what one thinks of Gibson’s tone and approach, it seems undeniable that Palin did little to rebut the “no experience” charge.

    Silver lining: whether it’s as Vice President of the United States or Governor of Alaska, I suspect she’ll be spending plenty of time between now and 2012 brushing up on her foreign policy knowledge. The big question is whether she can learn enough between now and her debate with Biden to win the thing.


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