Where Is the Tea Party Revolution on Foreign Policy?

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by Stephen Kinzer: Regime
Change: Promise and Peril



latest populist movement, which reaches back to revolutionary history
by calling itself the “Tea Party,” helped shape the remarkable
results of last November’s midterm election. Some dare to hope
that candidates elected in that political uprising might help arrest
America’s alarming decline. Others see the uprising as no more
than a cover for the corporate power that lay behind many so-called
insurgent campaigns of that extraordinary political season.

One thing about
Tea Party ideology is clear: it is almost entirely a reaction to
the Obama administration’s domestic policies. The decline of
American greatness, however, is due at least as much to profoundly
misguided foreign policies. Unless those policies are reevaluated
and changed in some fundamental way, there will be little chance
of reclaiming America’s immense promise.

Where do the
self-described insurgents stand on crucial questions of America’s
role in the world? It’s hard to tell. Daunting global challenges
face the United States, but Tea Party activists have no coherent
approach to them.

When it comes
to dealing with those challenges, the newly triumphant insurgents
are of two minds. Some, such as Sarah Palin, seem to embrace what
has become known as neo-con ideology: that the United States is
the world’s enforcer, and that to protect America’s interests,
the U.S. government needs to rattle sabers every day and wage war
on those who defy it. Senator-elect Marco Rubio of Florida seemed
to embrace this view with his chest-thumping proclamation that the
United States is “the most exceptional country in the history
of mankind.” That is the opposite of insurgent thinking. It
sounds like a depressing reaffirmation of Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright’s famous assertion, “We are the indispensable
nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.” That
view, endlessly echoed across the political spectrum, holds that
Americans have been granted unique insight into how societies should
be organized, and they have the right and duty to impose their political,
social, and economic values on others.

A few of the
elder statesmen who helped inspire the Tea Party movement, such
as Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, take the opposite view. They argue
that the world will not collapse if Bolivia and Sudan and Kyrgyzstan
are left to deal with their own problems without tutelage from Washington.
Even after last year’s so-called political insurgency, however,
theirs seem to be lonely voices in the hypermilitarist Tea Party

global military reach cannot be considered in isolation from its
daunting budget problems. The United States spends nearly as much
on “defense” as the rest of the world combined. The Pentagon’s
2010 budget is well over half a trillion dollars, not counting additional
appropriations of more than $150 billion for what the Bush administration
called the “global war on terror” and the Obama administration
has rebranded as “overseas contingency operations.” Such
expenditures will rise steadily as long as the United States continues
its pursuit of “full spectrum dominance.” It is an endless
spiral, based on the view that the United States must project power
to every continent, control every ocean, rule the world’s skies,
monopolize outer space, guarantee through military power its access
to important resources, and spend endlessly to prepare for every
imaginable future conflict.

To project
this power, the United States maintains more than 700 military bases
around the world, peopled by more than a quarter-million soldiers.
Are they necessary to protect America? Is it urgent that the United
States station 75,000 soldiers in Germany? Must it maintain 11 carrier
strike groups, while no other country has even two? Are dozens of
bases in Japan and Okinawa essential to its security? Do its vital
interests require large-scale deployments of troops and weaponry
in Turkey, New Zealand, Honduras, Spain, Thailand? Must it encircle
perceived rivals such as Iran, China, and Russia with an intimidating
ring of soldiers, jet fighters, and nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles?

left and right

There was a
time when answers to those questions fell along the Right/Left divide
in American politics. Rightists believed that no expense was too
great if it promoted American global power; leftists wanted to cut
military budgets. Like so much in American political life, this
20th-century divide has been slow to change as global realities
change. Many still insist that “full spectrum dominance”
remains essential to protecting American lives. Others – a
lamentably small minority – suggest that the obsession with
hegemony does not serve true security needs and is instead a cover
for America’s insatiable lust for resources and the interests
of arms makers at home – in essence, a lavish subsidy for powerful
interests that bankroll the political campaigns of pliant lackeys
in Congress.

Evidence of
such interests rains down on Americans every day. Take this brief
and seemingly innocuous note, recently published in the New York
Times, about Rep. Howard McKeon, the incoming chairman of the
House Armed Services Committee: “His district is home to important
military contractors, including Northrop Grumman and General Atomics,
maker of the Predator drone, which have donated generously to his
campaigns.” Why have those companies sent money and jobs to
McKeon’s district and to the districts of so many other influential
members of Congress, regardless of party? It is part of the legalized
bribery that has become a foundation of America’s political

This sobering
reality, which is recognized by most Americans and widely acknowledged
in Washington, cries out for an angry, peasants-with-pitchforks
insurgency. Might members of the Tea Party movement lead it? Prospects
are not good. Too many of those self-proclaimed insurgents, like
too many traditional Republicans and Democrats, accept self-destructive
mantras of security policy that are based on the idea that the world
is a vast territory made for the United States to control and exploit;
that it needs to be managed; and that Americans must do the managing.

There is another
view. It draws on the ancient and immutable pattern of the rise
and fall of great powers and sees the United States embarking on
the imperial overreach that usually marks the beginning of decline.
In Washington, however, the pull of consensus is intense. In the
inner councils of Republican and Democratic power, and at think
tanks that consider themselves liberal or conservative, those who
question the need for America’s global hegemony, or for endless
wars in faraway lands, risk being labeled as ignorant, dangerous,
or both. Today this consensus is bipartisan not simply because of
the money that flows to both parties from corporations that profit
from militarism, but also because of the pull of party politics.
Most Democrats shrink from criticizing a president of their own
party. Many Republicans equate guns with power and have never seen
a war they didn’t like.

There have
always been isolated dissenters from this consensus, dating back
to Abraham Lincoln, whose opposition to the Mexican War contributed
to his defeat in 1848 after a single term in the House of Representatives.
Today such iconoclasts are stigmatized as being on the “extreme
right” of Ron Paul or the “extreme left” of Dennis
Kucinich. The fact that that is unlikely to change suggests that
last year’s political revolution was not much of a revolution
at all.


The 2010 election
campaign was waged mainly on economic issues, not foreign policy.
Yet if the new Congress wants to cut spending, where better to start
than in Iraq and Afghanistan, where, according to the Congressional
Research Service, the U.S. government is now spending a mind-numbing
$10 billion every month? Beyond the financial drain of those wars,
and the global military expenditures that prepare Americans to fight
new ones, lies the stark fact that they do little to enhance American
security. On the contrary, America’s reputation as the world’s
self-appointed enforcer undermines its security and creates new
enemies every day.

from the militarist consensus disagree among themselves about what
the United States should do with the huge amounts of money it would
save if it retreated from militarism. Those on one end of the political
spectrum would use it to pay for education, infrastructure improvements,
and other domestic programs. Those on the other end would return
it to citizens through tax cuts. That would be a wonderful debate
to have, but it is unlikely to emerge because the militarist consensus
is so strong. The United States is a warlike nation and is likely
to remain so even as its insistence on global hegemony weakens it
economically and politically. This is the looming danger that threatens
America’s future. It is what Reinhold Niebuhr called “the
irony of American history.” The more powerful and better armed
Americans become, the weaker and more besieged they feel.

surveys suggest that many Americans believe their country is in
decline or heading in the wrong direction. Who could disagree? But
the new legislators who have arrived in Washington seem no more
open to a fundamental reordering of foreign and security policies
than those they defeated. If any of the Tea Party insurgents who
won election last year turns into a true insurgent on those issues,
many will cheer. America is waiting for brave voices to challenge
the militarist consensus. Some newly elected Republicans are ideally
poised to make that challenge. None, however, seems ready to do
so. On issues of global security and America’s role in the
world, they are likely to be just as mindlessly conventional as
the Democrats they profess to loathe.

from The Future of Freedom Foundation.

8, 2011

Kinzer is an author and newspaper reporter. He is a veteran New
York Times correspondent who has reported from more than 50 countries
on five continents. His books include Overthrow
and All
the Shah’s Men

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