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How the Tea Party Is Wrecking Republican Foreign Policy

Now that the midterm elections are over and voices of the Tea Party will soon be established in Congress, the movement’s views on foreign policy will come under closer scrutiny, and the results may prove surprising, not least to the Tea Partiers themselves. Those views are far from Republican orthodoxy. On some issues, the Tea Partiers will predictably line up with the Republican leadership, but on others they may find they have more in common with Democrats. They may even provide Barack Obama with unexpected support. Those who think Sarah Palin speaks for the Tea Party on foreign policy haven’t been paying attention.

It’s hard enough to define Tea Party policies on domestic issues. As Kate Zernike writes in Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, the movement “meant different things to different people—even those within the movement could not always agree on what they wanted.” But the Tea Party is the soul of rationality and consistency on domestic issues compared to its stand on foreign policy questions. There is simply no there there. (Click here to view a slideshow of the silliest, scariest, and most NSFW Wikileaks.)

Books on the Tea Partiers, like Zernike’s, barely mention foreign policy, and most of the media are no better in their coverage. A search of the Web turns up little more, an occasional blog post or cursory comment, but nothing of any real substance. Probably the most extensive discussion of the subject was written by P.J. O’Rourke, a humorist. Asked if the Tea Party had a foreign policy, Dick Armey, who has made himself one of the movement’s stalwarts, responded, “I don’t think so.” Analysts of the Tea Party’s foreign policy are therefore working largely in the dark. Still, one can glimpse occasional flickers of light that permit some extrapolations and tentative conclusions.

Take two issues where domestic and foreign policy overlap: immigration and trade. On neither of these questions is the movement in step with Republican Party orthodoxy. With regard to immigration, Tea Partiers often exhibit a hostility that shades into nativism. Remember Sharron Angle’s endorsement of Phoenix’s hard-line sheriff, Joe Arpaio: every state, she said, should have a sheriff like Joe Arpaio. Citing a New York Times poll, Zernike notes that 82 percent of Tea Partiers think illegal immigration is a “very serious” problem, compared to 60 percent of the general public. Yet the corporate sector of the Republican Party has always shown sympathy for increased immigration, and often seems willing to look the other way over illegal immigration. The more immigrants, the greater the competition for jobs, the lower the wage costs for business. Besides, someone has to mow the lawn and look after the kids.

Similar forces are at play in the case of trade. Tea Partiers are suspicious of free trade and globalization in general, because they fear a loss of American jobs. Yet the Republican Party has traditionally been the party of free trade. The Tea Partiers will find their closest allies on this issue among Democrats, especially trade unionists. We just saw what the future politics of trade will look like when President Obama had trouble concluding a free-trade pact with South Korea, originally approved by George W. Bush in 2007. A coalition of Democrats and Tea Partiers inside and outside of Congress opposed it, despite its potential to boost our economy and strengthen crucial alliances in Asia.

In truth, on both immigration and trade, the Tea Partiers are in favor of more government, not less, putting them at odds with Republican Party laissez-faire instincts. However they may feel about the evil of deficits, Tea Partiers are not libertarians. By majorities of almost two-to-one, they support Social Security and Medicare. As Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen write in their book Mad As Hell, “it would be a profound mistake to say that they are an adjunct of the GOP.”

But it’s on questions of America’s role in the world that the divisions between Tea Partiers and standard-issue Republicans begin to look like chasms. The key figures here are the Pauls, Ron and Rand, longtime congressman and recently elected senator, father and son. Ron Paul has been called “the Tea Party’s brain,” its “intellectual godfather”; Rand Paul, by virtue of his election victory, has made himself a powerful, perhaps the most powerful, Tea Party spokesman on the hill.

The Pauls’ positions on foreign policy are not identical, but the links between them are more than genetic. In a recent statement for Foreign Policy magazine, Ron Paul called for an end to “the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” He went on: “We cannot talk about the budget deficit and spiraling domestic spending without looking at the costs of maintaining an American empire of more than 700 military bases in more than 120 foreign countries.” And like father, like son. Rand Paul has said that “part of the reason we are bankrupt as a country is that we are fighting so many foreign wars and have so many military bases around the world.” He opposes what he calls “a blank check for the military.”

These freshly invigorated voices within the Republican Party are already finding common cause with doves inside the Democratic Party. Ron Paul has joined with Barney Frank in calling for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as from Germany, Japan, and South Korea. “We don’t need to be the world’s policeman,” Paul said, echoing the Vietnam war protesters of an earlier era.

Hawkish Republicans have taken note. Casting a suspicious eye at the Tea Partiers, John McCain has said, “I worry a lot about the rise of protectionism and isolationism in the Republican Party.” There was a truce within the party until the elections, but now, as Richard Viguerie warned, “a massive, almost historic battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party begins.” Onlookers can expect to hear a great deal of name calling in coming months as charges of “isolationist” and “imperialist” fly back and forth.

At the center of this battle, of course, is Sarah Palin. She has allied herself firmly with the Republican hawks, opposing any cuts in defense spending and generally calling for a more activist and interventionist America throughout the world. She is on record in support of an attack on Iran. To much of the press and the punditocracy, she is the darling of the Tea Partiers, but that’s not how it looks to many inside the movement, and if you want to hear the worst of the vituperation aimed her way, you should look not in the direction of liberals and Democrats, but at the Ron Paul wing of the Tea Party movement. Accused of hijacking the movement for the neoconservatives, she is called “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” “simplistic,” “senseless and deranged,” “close-minded,” “arrogant,” “a neocon Stepford wife.”

She and Glenn Beck, another hijacker, are “duplicitous and deceiving whores of the global establishment, practiced at fooling well-meaning followers into betraying their own interests.” And maybe worst of all, “just like Obama and the Democrat version of Bush neocons.” (In a complicated political maneuver, Rand Paul sought and Sarah Palin bestowed her endorsement in his Senate race, a move that dismayed both his supporters and opponents; Ron Paul said the endorsement “gave him pause.”)

Unsurprisingly, a considerable amount of the name-calling comes down to Israel. It can’t be said that Palin has taken a strong stand on Israel—a more appropriate characterization would be that she out-Netanyahus Benjamin Netanyahu: “I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.”

Such sentiments win no applause from the Tea Partiers aligned with Ron Paul. He has repeatedly condemned Israeli policies, often in the harshest terms. One of his staffers declared that, “By far the most powerful lobby in Washington of the bad sort is the Israeli government.” Paul’s opponents inside and outside the Tea Party see undertones of anti-Semitism in his positions, or worse, though John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, gives him something of a pass: “I’m inclined to think that Paul, who is not the most careful and prudent of speakers, is not an anti-Semite.” But he adds that Paul does follow in a tradition of American isolationism that, in its history, has been “a hotbed of classic and unambiguous anti-Semitism throughout the 20th century.”

One of the odder twists in this intramural debate—and possibly a sign of things to come—was an idea recently floated by Congressman Eric Cantor to remove aid to Israel from the foreign operations budget. It could be seen as a preemptive step to preserve aid to Israel at a time when his party, under the increasing influence of the Tea Party movement, is less sympathetic to foreign aid and defense spending, and less automatically supportive of Israel. The plan went nowhere as influential groups like AIPAC roundly opposed it, and Cantor quickly backtracked. But as the only Jewish Republican congressman, he may have been more sensitive to the drift of the Republican Party than other Jewish leaders.

By the same token, if the president proposes cuts in military spending, there will probably be Tea Partiers ready to support him. If Obama decides to speed up withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, he could find Republican backers for that, too. And most controversial of all, if he attempts to put some distance between the United States and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, he may discover that as the Tea Party movement extends its sway, his political bedfellows have become stranger and stranger. 

Barry Gewen has been an editor at The New York Times Book Review for over 20 years. He has written frequently for The Book Review, as well as for other sections ofThe Times. His essays have also appeared in World AffairsThe American Interest,World Policy Journal, and Dissent.

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