Charles Homans is an editor at The Washington Monthly, and previously worked as the only reporter based in the Aleutian Islands.
Two summers ago, I spent a week and a half on a Coast Guard ship that was patrolling the waters off Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The man who slept in the next bunk over from mine was the ship's Russian linguist, a Marine lance corporal; while other Marines he knew had been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, he was deployed to the Bering Sea. Every once in a while, a Russian fishing boat would appear on the boat's radar, and the Coasties would have to board and inspect it. At that point, he would be called upon to translate. But this didn't happen very often. I asked him what he did the rest of the time. "I lift weights," he replied. "And play a lot of poker."
Now that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is running for vice president, and the more accommodating members of the conservative commentariat have moved the goal posts on what constitutes foreign policy experience, it appears that both the Marine and I were unwittingly on the front lines of an epochal geopolitical struggle. I guess the Alaskan-Russian front was more exciting than I remember it being--I mostly recall seeing a lot of whales.
In fact, Steve Doocy, Michael Barone, and now John McCain himself--who have all been using Alaska's proximity to Russia as a testament to Palin's foreign policy chops--are stealing a page from the playbook of Sen. Ted Stevens, the icon of the paleo-Republican establishment in Alaska whose corruption Palin has made a (recent) career of condemning. Stevens, like a generation of Alaskan politicians before him, has regularly used Alaska's marginal strategic importance as a cover for political nest-feathering--which explains part of why a quarter of the $7.6 billion Alaska received from the federal government in 2002 alone went to defense spending. In 1986, the hawkish senator called in a favor from then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and had an Army division originally intended for fighting guerrillas in the tropics moved to Alaska instead. "Once they decided to satisfy Stevens, they invented a rationale and said that the Russians are coming to threaten the Aleutians," a Defense Department official groused to a reporter at the time.
If using Alaskan geography to wring a couple billion out of the Treasury is de rigueur by now, using it to nab the Naval Observatory is decidedly more ambitious. But I'm concerned that Palin isn't thinking big enough. Why stop with Russia? What about North Korea? In July 2006, Kim Jong Il attempted a test of a long-range missile with the theoretical ability to reach the uninhabited tip of the Aleutian chain. But Palin's going to have take on such apparent Alaska haters as CNN founder Ted Turner, who was asked about the issue on Wolf Blitzer's show after a visit to North Korea. "Well, what, the Aleutian Islands?" Turner scoffed at Blitzer after being questioned about the country's missile range. "There's nothing up there but a few sea lions." You gonna take that, Sarah?Charles Homans