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September 19, 2008

John McCain's wing(wo)man and "she will do": Brendan Simms on why Sarah Palin is John McCain's secret foreign policy weapon

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge - discovers the hidden foreign policy strengths of Sarah Palin.

I am no pilot, but after hearing of the surprise choice of Sarah Palin as Republican nominee for the Vice-Presidency it suddenly occurred to me that the key to understanding John McCain is that he is a "flyboy" who has been set an almost impossible mission. He knows that whatever travails Barack Obama may have experienced in the polls over the past few weeks, the Senator from Illinois is an intelligent, mature and formidable adversary with the advantage of youth and distance from the Republican brand.

This remains, as the pundits keep on telling us, the Democrats' election to lose. If McCain flies by the book, and takes the approved route to the target, he will be shot down in flames. He might get further than any other Republican would this year, but the result would be the same. But as anybody who has read McCain's autobiographical Faith of My Fathers, will know, the author never does it the easy way, or by the book. So McCain is going to do it his way, he will buck conventional wisdom, he is going to duck and weave, and keep the enemy guessing until he has completed his mission.

It has been well said that Sarah Palin is an enormous electoral gamble. To be sure, with her social conservatism, she shores up the "base", and her sex may well win over some disgruntled Hillaryites. This is already beginning to happen among lower-income women of all ages. Whether Palin can also eat into Democrat support among the "classic" older educated female demographic has to be a doubtful proposition, however, given the staunch "pro-life" consensus on the McCain-Palin ticket, and the "pro-choice" position shared by Obama and Biden.

Besides, some of those worried by Obama's youth and inexperience on foreign policy will be reassured by Biden's presence, while being concerned that Palin, who has no such background at all, could find herself succeeding a man who is after all 72 years of age. But if his VP selection undercuts one key plank of the McCain brand, she reinforces another, which had recently been in serious disrepair - his status as a maverick and reformer. It is not just that John McCain has made a surprise choice, it is that Palin is a crusader from central casting, who would not look out of place in a Grisham movie.

Like McCain, she has come to national politics relatively late in life, in her forties. Like McCain, she first made her mark by tackling corruption - in her own party. The difference to both Obama and Biden, both of whom have been in some form of politics or another since adolescence, and neither of whom have shown any signs of bucking party orthodoxy in any sustained way, could not be more marked. It makes their "change" message all the harder to sustain.

The choice also marks the GOP's card for the future. Between them, McCain and Palin look set to reclaim the Republican brand from the corporate mastodons of the Bush-Cheney era. Moreover, unless Palin goes off the rails - and her initial performances have been impressive - she will be a leading light in American Republicanism for a generation. Win in November, and she will be in pole position to run in 2012 or 2016, when she will still only be in her mid-fifties. Lose, ditto.

But there is another reason, which is not connected to the electoral roll of the dice, or the long-term prospects for the GOP. Too many commentators have blandly assumed that McCain was making a purely demographic pitch, without regard to the Vice-President's proper role as collaborator, deputy and if necessary successor to the president.

In fact, as McCain knows, every flyboy needs a wingman. Exceptionally tough times lie ahead: securing the final defeat or co-option of the insurgency in Iraq, dealing Iranís nuclear ambitions and especially confronting an increasingly aggressive Russia. As president, McCain will need to know that his Veep will not be wishing him to fail, that s/he will share his core beliefs on the nature of international politics, and will carry on the struggle if he falls.

Everything Sarah Palin has said since her nomination - her acceptance speech and most recently the ABC interview with Charlie Gibson - underlines her essential agreement with McCain on what he regards as the core issues. She has expressed explicit support for NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia, confronting the Iranians over their nuclear programme, and seeing the "surge" in Iraq through to completion. Complementing a strategy for "victory", as she puts it, is a domestic programme predicated on achieving as much energy independence as possible, and rallying the nation behind the external struggle.

If I may change genres from Top Gun to the western, Sarah Palin will be in the McCain posse when it rides out on 5 November. Despite not knowing her at all well - and in the military these decisions often have to be made quickly and on the basis of imperfect information - McCain has made the judgment that, as John Wayne would have put it, "she will do".

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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