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Where Is the Tea Party Revolution on Foreign Policy?

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America’s 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 wilderness.

America’s 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?

Militarism, 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 system.

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.

Unlikely insurgency

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.

Dissenters 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.

Public-opinion 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.

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    Stephen 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".