Sarah Palin recently returned from a trip to Haiti and news reports suggest she is planning to spend some of early 2011 visiting Israel and the UK. The proposed trip would be Palin’s first visit to both countries and, based on what we know about her, she is clearly not heading overseas out of personal curiosity to see the world.
It is one of the peculiar rites of American presidential politics that having previously run for the office is typically seen as a valuable credential for holding it. During their first campaigns, Ronald Reagan and John Edwards were both dismissed as lightweight dilettantes; four years later, both were treated as credible figures on foreign policy. Today newspapers regularly publish op-eds by Mitt Romney on geopolitical topics such as nuclear proliferation, even though when he ran for president in 2008 his opponents repeatedly pointed to the former Massachusetts governor’s lack of experience in international affairs.
Palin may prove the rare exception to this bizarre habit of grandfathering in former national candidates. She is actually a less credible potential commander-in-chief now than the day John McCain picked her to be his running mate two and a half years ago. Then her staff chafed at answering basic questions like which foreign countries she had visited in her life (the best answer seemed to be four) and resisted any request for interviews from journalists who inclined to ask her serious policy questions.
A globetrotting agenda for 2011 is evidence that Palin may no longer be content to fully play by her own rules. Given her high profile, Palin can wait longer than most of her peers – probably into autumn – before deciding whether she will run in the Republican presidential primaries, which look set to begin in February 2012. That she intends to spend some of that time burnishing her global credentials is perhaps the best sign yet that she is seriously considering such a campaign.
London and Jerusalem are standard stops on the overseas itineraries of aspiring national figures, firstly because “special relationship” photo opportunities are still the gold standard of head-of-state imagery; and secondly because of the domestic constituencies – American Jews, evangelical Christians and conservative hawks – that prize the Holy Land. (New York politicians still talk of the need to tour “the three I’s”: Israel, Italy, and Ireland).
Polls have repeatedly shown since the 2008 election that more Americans like Palin than believe she is prepared to be president. Little of the work she has done since then – communicating largely through Facebook and Twitter and launching a family reality show – seem to be targeted at undoing those impressions. She travelled to Hong Kong in late 2009 to deliver a foreign-policy address to a business group – but she did not appear eager to present it as anything more than a mercenary’s journey in search of Asian speech fees. We may understand her motives this time if she returns to Alaska empty-handed.