During his interview/college boards with Sarah Palin, Charles Gibson demanded that Sarah Palin explain the Bush Doctrine.  However, according to the man who coined the phrase, Gibson doesn’t know what it means, and ABC apparently didn’t bother doing any research on the topic before posing the question.  Charles Krauthammer says Palin came a lot closer to the right answer than Gibson did:

“At times visibly nervous . . . Ms. Palin most visibly stumbled when she was asked by Mr. Gibson if she agreed with the Bush doctrine. Ms. Palin did not seem to know what he was talking about. Mr. Gibson, sounding like an impatient teacher, informed her that it meant the right of ‘anticipatory self-defense.’ ”

— New York Times, Sept. 12

Informed her? Rubbish.

The New York Times got it wrong. And Charlie Gibson got it wrong.

There is no single meaning of the Bush doctrine. In fact, there have been four distinct meanings, each one succeeding another over the eight years of this administration — and the one Charlie Gibson cited is not the one in common usage today. It is utterly different.

Most of us would have defined the Bush Doctrine quite differently than even Krauthammer offers here.  He goes through four iterations of what he sees as the Bush Doctrine, arriving at the administration’s last definition of their overarching foreign-policy goal of spreading democracy around the world.  For most of us, though, the Bush Doctrine remains the policy that any nation that supports or hosts terrorists is a de facto enemy of the United States of America and could face American military action.

America has always had as its foreign policy goal the spread of democracy, but its prioritization has varied widely over various executive administrations.  I don’t think that the Bush administration invented it; they just put it at a higher priority in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, seeing democracy as a means to lessen extremism fueled by oppression.  Even “anticipatory self-defense”, which Gibson snottily gave as his interpretation, didn’t originate with George W. Bush.  We invaded Grenada and Panama without being attacked, for instance, and in both cases forms of anticipatory self-defense were used as justification.  The blockade of Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis was clearly a form of anticipatory self-defense, since a blockade is by definition an act of war.

The one point that Bush invented was his definition of terrorist states and the US change in policy towards them.  It was a definition borne of necessity, as non-state organizations had become a useful proxy for nations like Iran, Syria, Libya, and other dangerous states that wanted to wreak havoc without having their hands publicly dirtied.  The Bush Doctrine removed that fig leaf and made clear that any nation connected with terrorist groups that attacked America or American interests would be considered to have joined in an act of war against the US and subject to immediate and overwhelming attack. In a way, it was a RICO Act for international relations.

That was the justification to invade Afghanistan and to threaten Pakistan with annihilation if they didn’t switch sides.  It has been invoked on numerous occasions since, but so far no nation has been dumb enough to allow terrorists to stage attacks on America from their soil.

Rarely has a gotcha boomeranged so badly against the one who wielded it.  Instead of having a moment of triumph, Gibson made himself look petty, snobbish, and badly informed.  The question revealed a rube, all right, but not the one ABC expected.

Update: The New York Times’ military correspondent, Michael Gordon, concurs — and notes that Gibson either didn’t know enough about the subject to define it in his question or intended it as a “gotcha” all along.