Another Perspective

Alaskan Foreign Policy

Something to remember tonight: Sarah Palin, like any Alaska governor, is certainly more cosmopolitan in world outlook than her insular colleagues in the lower 48.

By 10.2.08

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It's true that Alaskans look at foreign policy from a different perspective. They know the world is a globe. They look at their neighbors from the polar projection, while the lower 48 are still thinking east and west along the old Mercator projection maps, maps devised for the navigation of sailing vessels in the 16th century, and published by the Flat Earth Society. The Mercator projection is perfect for backward-looking pols such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Thus a governor of Alaska has to be more cosmopolitan in world outlook than her insular colleagues in the lower 48. Surrounded as Alaska is by the seven Arctic nations (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden) Alaska has a truly strategic location, unmatched by any other U.S. state. It has a contiguous boundary with Canada of 1,538 miles, but none with the lower 48.

It is also closer to the Russian Federation than any other U.S. state. There are no international waters between Russia and Alaska. The boundary in the Bering Strait splits the two-mile difference between Big Diomede and Little Diomede Islands, two bleak rocky islets that may have been part of the prehistoric landbridge crossed by Todd Palin's people eons ago. One hundred forty-six Inuit-Americans still live on a 3,000-year-old village site on Little Diomede, so if Sarah Palin lived there she sure could see Russia from her front porch.

If you are curled up that close to the Russian bear, you want to be sure that he is sleeping quietly. You are very attentive if he moves to make sure that he is not going to roll over on you. You have a sixth sense about Russian fighters and bombers intruding into your territory, or daring to come as close as possible. You are relieved when U.S. military planes scramble from Elmendorf Air Force Base to escort them back. Meanwhile, you make nice. You invite the Russians on trade missions, and you invite them to international conferences.

On August 12, Governor Sarah Palin addressed the 8th Annual Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region held in Fairbanks, hosted by U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and sponsored by the University of Alaska. The Russian parliamentarians were included along with the Canadian, Danish, Finish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish legislators. They focused on human health in the region, particularly among the indigenous peoples common to all the nations. They talked about preserving renewable, non-renewable and alternative resources. Governor Palin reported on Alaska's progress with the new gas pipeline and with alternative energy.

Alaska is a busy place. Its international airport is on the great circle route, the shortest distance between Washington, D.C., and the Orient. It happens to be the last gas station open until midnight (figuratively speaking) before the long hop over the Pacific to Tokyo. This contrasts with, say Delaware, which is a drive-through patch on the road to Jersey.

Despite having a population of only 670,000, Alaska exports $3.9 billion a year, mostly to China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and other Pacific Ocean nations, as well as to Canada Russia, Finland, Norway and a raft of other European nations. Investment comes from abroad too. Canada has invested over $3 billion, and that was before the contract agreement with TransCanada Alaska on the new gas pipeline. Governor Palin and Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie renewed the Alaska-Yukon Intergovernmental accord in March.

UNTIL JOE BIDEN was nominated by the Democratic National Convention to be Vice President of the United States, it had never occurred to anyone that the chief qualification of a vice president was to be an expert on foreign policy. It was a drastic step but necessary when the Democrats saw they had a problem. Clearly, Barack Obama's much-touted advisory board of 300 foreign policy experts was inadequate. They had to shore up a nominee whose only foreign policy experience to date had been to interfere in the elections in Kenya on behalf of his cousin, Raila Odinga. They realized he needed one more expert, the 301st , to give the nominee that gravitas necessary to wow the foreign policy establishment.

Thus the nomination of Joe Biden was inevitable. After all, how could you trump a man who was not only the third most liberal Senator in the world's greatest deliberative body, but also Chairman of the august Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Suddenly, it was a game-changer. The vice-presidency was all about foreign policy, and when Sarah Palin was nominated by the Republicans she was held to the new standard. With Palin's inexperience, how could she compete with Biden's 36 years of inexperience, of being wrong year after year on every issue? Of a man so used to reaching out to other nations that he plagiarized his speeches word for word from a British socialist, Neil Kinnock, the leader of the British Labour Party? Of a man who has been around so long that he remembers watching FDR go on television in 1929 and rally the nation when the Great Depression hit? (Those who were unaware that television existed in 1929 should recall that it was invented in 1928 by Al Gore, before he invented the Internet.)

Gone are the days when Teddy Roosevelt, annoyed in pre-air conditioning days by the constant tinkling of the crystal chandelier in his White House office sent it over to the Capitol office of his vice-president, Charles Fairbanks (surely you remember Charles Fairbanks, don't you?), with the statement, "Take that thing over to the vice-president's office. He has nothing to do. Maybe it will keep him awake." And the chandelier hangs there today, the somnolent Fairbanks long departed.

No one asked whether Harry Truman, the gutsy guy from the Prendergast gang, knew beans about foreign policy. Yet he ended World War II by bombing Hiroshima, set up the United Nations, formulated the Marshall Plan, and executed the Truman Doctrine that stopped Communist expansion in Europe dead in its tracks.

Nor were Alben Barkley, Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew, Gerald Ford, Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle or Al Gore chosen to fill the foreign policy gap. The only exception was Dick Cheney. The critics said he knew too much about foreign policy.

So we find that Charles Gibson and Katie Couric have raised the bar. Their interviews with Governor Palin were all about foreign policy, at least the part they put on the air. It took a journalist from Montana, Frank Miele, to go to the transcripts of the whole interviews to show that 70 percent of what she said was left, metaphorically, on the cutting room floor. As Miele wrote, "You will see two Sarah Palins. The one sitting across from Charlie Gibson was nuanced, insistent and thoughtful, but the one that Gibson cut-and-pasted in the editing room was a cross between Ma Kettle and Dr. Strangelove." Gibson ridiculed her for suggesting that that the Russian invasion of Georgia was unprovoked (just as Obama had called upon both sides "to use restraint"-- both Georgia whose territory had been invaded and Russia whose ruthless assault had been long-planned). Gibson seemed incredulous when she suggested that Alaska's border with Russia gave her some understanding of Russia's actions.

Katie Couric also left the best parts of Palin's interview on the cutting room floor. With her beady eyes focused, she moved in to gimlet the governor on the question of proximity to Russia, "as part of your foreign policy experience," which Palin had never claimed. It's too bad that Palin got flustered at that moment, after having been burned so badly by Gibson's treachery on the issue. "As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska," she said without getting her syntax in gear. That made it a must-go sound-byte in the editing room.

Of course Senator McCain got the same treatment. In the McCain-Obama debate, six times the name "Ahmadinejad" rolled smoothly off McCain's tongue, but one time momentarily it seemed to get caught in his throat. Anyone want to guess which one of the seven Ahmadinejads got featured on the network reporting the next day?

A MORE COMPREHENSIVE answer from Palin might have pointed out that Russian fighters routinely violate U.S. air space over Alaskan waters, and U.S. military planes based in Alaska scramble to escort them out. She could also have pointed out that Russian submarines and icebreakers enter Canadian waters without a by-your-leave, and in the Arctic Ocean they have staked Russian claims to ownership of the North Pole, and the 8 billion tons of oil and gas that lie underneath. This is the kind of stuff on which Palin was briefed as commander of the Alaska National Guard. If Palin was a bit thrown off her stride, it may have been because she was unsure of the fuzzy line between classified and unclassified intelligence in her first incursions into network TV.

Amazingly, neither Biden as chairman of the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee, nor Obama as chairman of the subcommittee on Europe have ever held hearings on the matter of Putin rearing his head. In fact, Obama is already such an expert that he feels no need to hold any hearings at all in his subcommittee. With a revanchist Russia laying claim to Georgia, perhaps Putin is beginning to think of Alaska as part of what the Russians call the Near Abroad. Perhaps, in some of his revanchist moods, he covets Seward's Icebox as Russian territory which the Czar disposed of too quickly. Is it possible that he is seeking abrogation of the 1867 Seward-Stoeckl Treaty? Probably not; he is just acting that way. But it would be a good idea for Biden and Obama to take a day off from campaigning and hold a hearing on Russia's designs in the Arctic. They might learn something if they call as their first expert witness the Governor of Alaska.

Some of the hoity-toity conservatives in the National Review crowd were shocked and appalled at the Palin interviews. Wrinkling their noses at the smell of mooseburgers cooking on the grill, they could hardly eat their pheasant under glass, stuffed with pate de foie gras and truffles. They called for Palin to be thrown under the harpsichord.

Well, we shall see. At least the Palin-Biden debate will be broadcast in full and not be cut up by those who have knives out against her. Can the indomitable Palin hold her own once Biden fires up his gaffe-o-matic? There's just a chance, maybe a good chance that she can knock off the old geezer and field-dress him on the spot.

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