Sarah Palin's Storm at the Tea Party
Why haven't responsible Republicans spoken out against her?
Are there any Republican grown-ups out there, and, if there are, will they ever start coming to the aid of their party?
That sentence could segue into any number of topics, but the one at hand is Sarah Palin, her Saturday-night speech at the Tea Party "convention," and her morning-after declaration on Fox News that, yes, a White House run is on her mind.
Do responsible Republicans (if the phrase hasn't lapsed from disuse) really want this pumped-up incarnation of Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes as their standard bearer?
Again, the question could be split up into many parts, but this is the "War Stories" column, so let's focus on Palin's take on war and peace.
Here's the key applause-getting line from that section of her talk:
Treating [terrorists] like a mere law-enforcement matter places our country at great risk because that's not how radical Islamist extremists are looking at this. They know we're at war. And to win that war we need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law.
Obviously, she means to be attacking President Barack Obama, but the real question on the table here is does she believe what she's saying? Or, to put it another way: Is she a rank opportunist, or does she live on another planet? And of the two possibilities, which is worse?
President Obama was at one time a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, but to suggest that he regards counterterrorism as a "mere" legal matter, or that he's gun-shy as commander-in-chief, is preposterous.
Obama, after all, has nearly tripled the number of U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. He has approved nearly twice as many CIA airstrikes against Taliban targets in Pakistan during his first year of office as President Bush did in his final year (65 vs. 36), killing more than twice as many militants in the process (571 vs. 268).
He has sent military trainers to help the Yemeni government fight al-Qaida insurgents. He has continued to boost the military budget. He has maintained the Bush administration's secret surveillance programs (despite protests from many Democrats). And Palin seems to have forgotten the time, last April, when Obama authorized SEAL sharpshooters to kill the three armed pirates who'd hijacked the merchant ship Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia. (The amnesia seems to have afflicted many Republicans, including some who lauded the president at the time.)
As for the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who nearly blew up a passenger plane on Christmas Day, yes, Obama took three days to comment on the incident—though, as many have since noted, Bush took six days to say anything about the shoe bomber, Richard Reid (and no Democrat made an issue of his reticence).
Reading Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights may have seemed a stretch (Obama the law professor!), but it turns out Reid was read his rights, too. More to the point, in neither case did the suspect use the occasion to clam up. As Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief under Presidents Clinton and Bush, has noted, Abdulmutallab briefly went quiet because the FBI agents read him his rights while he was under sedation, but after he woke up, he resumed talking quite freely.
Palin's words (which she read with a venom unbecoming to one who, by her own admission, hadn't thought a whit about foreign affairs until 18 months ago) are not merely false. They're dangerous.
If there is a terrorist attack on the United States in the next few years, we could deal with it more confidently, and respond more effectively, if the president were able to rally a spirit of national unity. George W. Bush was given a chance to do this after Sept. 11 and, despite some initial fumbling, rose well to the occasion, at least for a few months.
But if the Republican Party's most popular aspirant declares that the sitting president doesn't know we're at war, isn't even a commander-in-chief (and crowds roar at this charge with approval), then Obama would have a much harder time repairing a wounded nation.
Palin, of course, is not alone in this irresponsible fraudulence. Just last week, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House minority leader, casually said that Obama is taking a "pre-Sept. 11" approach to fighting terrorism.
Nobody is suggesting that Boehner run for higher office. But the tea-partiers are screaming, "Run, Sarah, run!" At the Nashville party on Saturday, someone in the audience asked her about the prospects for what he called the "two words that scare liberals—President Palin."
Let's be clear on why those words should terrify anyone with a thinking brain. Palin is someone who has clearly never seriously thought through any issue of national importance on her own. She's excellent at reciting a raucous speech, but she can't improvise a coherent sentence, which usually reflects an inability to form a coherent idea. (At Nashville, she even had to scribble her five-word legislative agenda on her palm, and glanced down at it during the Q&A.) She is deluded enough to believe (or at least to say Sunday morning on Fox News) that her brief, aborted stint as Alaska's governor gave her more executive experience than President Obama has even now. She believes that the country should elect leaders, including presumably herself, who seek solutions in "divine intervention."
Is this how Republicans who aspire to true leadership want to shape their party's ideas and their country's discourse? If not, they should hop off the circus wagon now.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Sarah Palin by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.