Sarah Palin thinks Barack Obama is a wimp. She’s been going around to Tea Party rallies, invoking the spirit of revolutionary Boston and castigating Obama for failing to exalt American power and punish our adversaries. She seems blissfully unaware that the imperial arrogance she’s preaching isn’t how the American founders behaved. It’s how the British behaved, and why they lost. Palin represents everything the original Tea Party was against.
Two months ago, the modern Tea Party held its national convention in Tennessee. There, Palin ridiculed Obama for “reaching out to hostile regimes, writing personal letters to dangerous dictators and apologizing for America.” “We need a strong national defense,” she demanded. “We must spend less time courting our adversaries.”
Last week, at a tax-day rally in Boston, she resumed her attack. Tea Party activists “will never apologize for being American,” she snarked. Our military power is “a force for good throughout this world, and that is nothing to apologize for.” She even implied a divine right to fossil fuel. “God knows we have the resources,” she told the crowd. “He created them for our use right here in America.”
On Friday, she lit into Obama for saying that America is a superpower “whether we like it or not.” On her Facebook page, she asked, “Mr. President,is a strong America a problem?” She accused Obama of being “more comfortable with an American military that isn’t quite so dominant,” and she faulted him for trying “to apologize for America when he travels overseas.” On Saturday, she told reporters, “I would hope that our leaders in Washington, D.C., understand we like to be a dominant superpower. I don’t understand a world view where we have to question whether we like it or not that America is powerful.”
What exactly are the apologies and misgivings for which Palin holds Obama in such contempt? One is his speech in Cairo last year, in which he conceded that “Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world.” In the speech, Obama said that “events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus.” He quoted Thomas Jefferson: “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”
The other target of Palin’s criticism is Obama’s press conference at last week’s Nuclear Security Summit, in which he argued that “so many of the challenges that we face internationally can’t be solved by one nation alone.” He cited Russia’s help in reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles, and he noted that the United States couldn’t bring peace to the Middle East without Israeli and Palestinian cooperation. Nevertheless, Obama said that the United States must work to resolve such conflicts, “because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.”
So when Obama said “like it or not,” he was expressing misgivings about costly faraway wars, not about power. But that isn’t what makes Palin’s argument so stupid. What makes it stupid is that it’s how Britain botched the Boston Tea Party and squandered its empire.
On Dec. 16, 1773, colonial dissidents famously protested British taxation without representation by dumping shiploads of tea into Boston Harbor. According to John C. Miller’s Origins of the American Revolution, British hawks responded exactly as Palin now recommends: by focusing on ego, power, and dominance. They called the Tea Party a “wanton and unprovoked insult” and proposed “to blow the town of Boston about the ears of its inhabitants.” King George III declared, “We must master them or totally leave them to themselves and treat them as Alien.”
The British hawks, like Palin, saw self-restraint as wimpy and dangerous. If Britain retreated from the tax policies that had provoked the Tea Party, they warned, the colonists would take this as “Proofs of our Weakness, Disunion and Timidity.” Miller writes, “Few Englishmen believed that the mother country could retain its sovereignty if it retreated in the face of such outrage: it was now said upon every side that the colonists must be chastised into submission.”
Palin thinks American power is above apology because it’s “a force for good throughout this world.” But Britain saw itself the same way. In their own eyes, Miller explains, Englishmen,
the terror of the evildoers of the world, could no longer sit still while a knot of agitators and firebrands in their own colonies sought to destroy the empire. If England were to continue to hold up her head in Europe as a great power, she could not permit ‘a petty little province, the creature of our own hands, the bubble of our breath,’ to hurl defiance across the Atlantic with impunity.
So rather than apologize or reach out, Britain flaunted its dominance and power. It imposed military rule in Massachusetts and shut down the port of Boston, thinking that this would divide the colonies and starve the insurgents into submission. Instead, Miller writes, the crackdown made Bostonians, in the eyes of the other colonies, “martyrs to American liberty.” The colonies united, and Britain was defeated.
That’s how all the natural resources of this land—the ones Palin thinks God created “for our use right here in America”—ended up being American rather than British. There was no America, as a nation, until Britain foolishly behaved as Palin now wants America to behave. Her advice is a prescription for superpower suicide. If she understood the Boston Tea Party as more than a slogan, she’d know that.
Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: