Stories by Marcia Smilack

Marcia Smilack is a freelance journalist and fine art photographer living on Martha's Vineyard.

Palin’s Sound Bite Foreign Policy

April 21st, 2010 at 3:00 pm 47 Comments

Seated on the same side of an antique table before a large audience, Presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev smile at one another as they exchange documents encased in red and black leather folders. The new START treaty has been signed, completing a journey Obama began when he visited the Czech Republic a year ago and announced his intention to begin ridding the world of nuclear weapons. He has reset relations between Russia and the United States and fulfilled a dream of another American President: Ronald Reagan. The cold war is over. Back in America, the former half-term governor of Alaska decries the horror of Obama’s achievement by invoking the Gipper:

We miss Ronald Reagan who used to say, when he would look at our enemies, he would say: ‘No. You lose. We win.’ That’s what we miss. And that is what we have to get back to,” says Sarah Palin. Compacting her historical error, she adds: ‘No administration in America’s history would, I think, ever have considered such a step.’

ABC’s George Stephanopoulos thinks her historically inaccurate remarks are important, so in an interview with President Obama he asks: “Sarah Palin said you’re like a kid who says, ‘Punch me in the face, and I’m not going to retaliate.’ Your response?”

“I really have no response,” Obama answers at first. A full moment passes before he completes his thought. “Because last I checked, Sarah Palin’s not much of an expert on nuclear issues.” His half-smile is not mocking, it is reluctant, the look of a man who has made the best of a bad question while pointing out a simple truth.

Palin’s comments on START reveal a disturbing truth; that when she doesn’t have an expert to tell her what to think, all she can do is recite the factoids that were drilled into her during the campaign. Switch to the GOP Southern Leadership Council where Palin is seething. Without Randy Scheunemann to advise on foreign affairs, she has to wing it. She reaches in and pulls out a card from the past:

“With all the vast nuclear experience he acquired as a community organizer, a part time Senator and a full time candidate, all that experience and still no accomplishment to date with North Korea and Iran.”

She retaliates like an Israeli commando, striking back twice as hard as she is hit, and yet there is a new element that is decidedly odd. Why is she speaking in campaign slogans from two years ago? Obama has been commander in chief for over a year, a period in which he has met or spoken with the Russian President sixteen times to personally negotiate details of the treaty.

Can it be that her real beef is not about policy, but the suggestion that she knows less than he?

Obama studied non-proliferation long before running for office. His college thesis at Columbia was called “Soviet Nuclear Disarmament.” He spoke passionately on the subject on the campaign trail in 2004. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama took his first trip as U.S. Senator in 2005 to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan to examine facilities for the storage and destruction of conventional, biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. He co-authored the “Lugar-Obama Non-proliferation Initiative,” which enhanced U.S. efforts to destroy conventional weapons stockpiles and detect and interdict weapons and materials of mass destruction throughout the world. This legislation was signed into law by President Bush in January 2007.

So why is Palin picking a fight with someone above her weight belt? The answer can be found in revelations from the McCain campaign’s senior staff. Assigned the job of prepping her for upcoming interviews and debates, they became apoplectic when they realized her dearth of knowledge on world affairs. To assuage their fears, Palin relayed that she could memorize facts quickly if they wrote them down on note cards.

Although she could memorize facts, she lacked an ability to conceptualize or use the information in alternative contexts, a problem most evident in her failed interviews where she answered specific questions with the wrong string of facts. It is not surprising that one of her contractual demands in her new persona as professional speaker is that no question be asked of her that has not been prescreened by staff. She uses campaign-speak to attack Obama because that is the memorized card she has pulled for the current situation, even though it has no relevance.

Compare the qualities of Sarah Palin’s dependence on note cards to how Dmitri Medvedev described Obama to George Stephanopoulos:

STEPHANOPOULOS: What do you make of Barack Obama the man?

MEDVEDEV: He’s very comfortable partner, it’s very interesting to be with him. The most important thing that distinguishes him from many other people . . . he’s a thinker, he thinks when he speaks. Which is already pretty good. He’s eager to listen to his partner, which is a pretty good quality for a politician. Because any politician is to a certain degree a mentor. They preach something. And the ability to listen to their partner is very important for the politician. And he is pretty deeply immersed in the subject, so he has a good knowledge of what he’s talking about. There was no instance in our meetings with Mr. Obama where he wasn’t well prepared for the questions. This is very good.”

The Russian leader isn’t wrong; whether you agree with Obama’s policies or not, you cannot dispute that Barack Obama is a thinker, while Sarah Palin –  “like many other people” — is not. It’s an important difference.

Making the Case for New START

April 9th, 2010 at 12:30 pm 23 Comments

The treaty agreement signed by President Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev to scale back the weaponry of the world’s two greatest nuclear powers still requires ratification of both governments. New START has the U.S. military’s full backing and has been endorsed by the country’s leading voices on national security from across the political spectrum, including prominent Republicans. Here are eight statements worth noting:


1. Joint statement issued by George Shultz, former Secretary of State; William Perry, former Secretary of Defense; Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State; and Senator Sam Nunn, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative

We strongly endorse the goals of this Treaty, and we hope that after careful and expeditious review that both the United States Senate and the Russian Federal Assembly will be able to ratify the Treaty.


2. Statement from Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

The treaty enhances our ability to do that which we have been charged to do: protect and defend the citizens of the United States.


3. Statement from Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and leader on nuclear reductions with Russia

I look forward to working quickly to achieve ratification of the new treaty.


4. Statement from Richard Burt, former ambassador to Germany and lead negotiator for the original accord under President George H.W. Bush

I was delighted to see the president not only focus on important steps that are contained in this treaty, but also focus on the need of follow-on negotiations to further reduce those weapons and continue toward the long-term goal of nuclear elimination.” Burt also said that Senate votes against the treaty would come from ”obstructionists and outliers in the goal of nuclear weapons reductions.


5. Statement from former Secretary of State Colin Powell in Nuclear Tipping Point, a documentary screened at the White House for President Obama (with many former secretaries of state and defense present)

This is the moment when we have to move forward, and all of us come together, to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and then eliminate them from the face of the earth.


6. Statement by Cardinal Francis E. George of the Archdiocese of Chicago in a letter to President Barack Obama

Based on a moral imperative to rid the world of nuclear weapons, the conference of bishops will be a steadfast supporter of strong and bipartisan action on the new treaty as an important and essential step toward a nuclear-free future. We will urge members of the U.S. Senate to come together across party lines to ratify the new START treaty.


7. Statement from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger also from the documentary Nuclear Tipping Point

Once nuclear weapons are used, we will be driven to take global measures to prevent it. Why don’t we do it now?


8. And finally, a statement from President Ronald Reagan

A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. And no matter how great the obstacles may seem, we must never stop our efforts to reduce the weapons of war. We must never stop at all until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of this Earth.

Brown Needs to Set Record Straight on Maddow

April 6th, 2010 at 8:30 am 31 Comments

I kept an open mind when Scott Brown was elected senator in Massachusetts where I reside, though I confess I didn’t vote for him. Nonetheless, I encouraged my Democratic friends to put their cynicism aside. “He may surprise us,” I insisted, because the truth is his campaign promise to be an independent thinker appealed to something deeper in me than partisan leanings. I have a profound belief in the necessity for a functioning two-party system. Politics aside, as an American, I worry about the GOP’s scorched earth strategy. So, like Olympia Snowe, I welcomed Scott Brown to the United States Senate, imagining that this moderate Republican would help break the stalemate. His vote for the jobs bill seemed like validation and frankly, it was easy to live with his vote against healthcare since we in Massachusetts already have it, thanks to Romney’s program for which Brown voted.

I am having a harder time, however, understanding a recent action, which confounds me.  The new senator sent a fundraising e-mail to GOP donors claiming the Democratic machine is trying to recruit television pundit Rachel Maddow to challenge him in the next election. Maddow’s response? “I was just surprised because it’s a factual assertion that they’re making that is just not based in reality.” To set him straight, she tried repeatedly to reach him by telephone but the senator returned none of her calls, which I readily believe, because he also returned none of mine. In the Boston Globe, senior strategist Eric Fehrnstrom denied that Maddow tried to contact Brown and continues to assert that Maddow is being recruited.

What to make of this?  After the election, Brown’s daughter revealed that her father’s famous truck was actually purchased to transport her horse to equestrian events. I rationalized this misrepresentation as a political tactic, perhaps even a symbol for a populist heart. But what spin do I put on Brown vs. Maddow? And why does a line from Joseph Conrad keep playing in my head?  ”You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie,” Conrad wrote, “not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me.”