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Innocence Abroad: The Tea Party's Search for Foreign Policy

W hat is the Tea Party’s foreign policy? It’s a difficult question on two counts. There is no Tea Party foreign policy as far as I can tell, and, on inspection, there is no Tea Party. There are, of course, any number of Tea Party Coalition groups across the country. But these mix and mingle, cooperate, compete, debate, merge, and overlap with countless other groups grouped together as the “Tea Party movement” in the public mind (or the public commentator mind).

Some of these organizations have staffs and salaries and offices, and some—according to the time left over for blogging after job and children—have memberships numbering between one and none. Various domestic policy foundations such as FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and the Independence Institute have had their influence, as have associations of people with a frame of mind about policy that’s more antinomian, such as FedUpUSA. Then there is the 9/12 Project, promoted by Glenn Beck, which seeks a return to the best of what Americans thought and felt after 9/11 and which is more concerned with values than policy per se. A variety of social conservatives with similar concerns about values—if diverse ideas of what those values are—also have been lumped with the Tea Party movement. Sometimes they’ve lumped themselves.

Disaggregation and multifariousness make it hard to take any policy measure of the Tea Party. But the tougher problem is definitional. “Movement” implies a destination. When you move you’re headed somewhere. Political movements have a place they want government to go. The Tea Party movement has a place it wants government to go—and rot. That’s different. The Tea Party has a political attitude rather than a political ideology.

Nonetheless, every political concept has foreign policy implications. George Washington warned against foreign entanglements. But the friends, enemies, and neighbors of that new concept, the United States, soon found themselves entangled in American foreign policy, even before America knew it had one.

 

S pecific, concrete political policy goals were disavowed by almost all of the people I talked to in the Tea Party movement (I use the term in the overly broad public commentator way). Instead, what I heard were arguments against the kind of centralized government power that concocts political policy goals—arguments of the Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman kind, that individuals are the best judges of how to employ their individual energies and resources. Whatever else the Tea Party movement believes, it espouses (and evidences) a firm belief in the self-organizing capacities of free individuals.

Unfortunately, we individuals are rarely free in the face of foreign policy. Foreign policy is highly centralized. And the political power that centralizes foreign policy is—when wielded by foreigners—outside the realm of our political influence no matter how popular the Tea Party becomes.

Nor is the past record of decentralization in foreign policy reassuring. It went well when the Soviet Union lost control of Eastern Europe’s foreign policy. It did not go so well when the European colonial powers lost control of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. And total decentralization of foreign policy meant a nightmare in the former Yugoslavia.

I take the Tea Party point that, politically speaking, control is scary. Out-of-control is also scary. And what’s most scary about foreign policy is how often it’s simply beyond our control.

I talked to a Tea Party supporter with strong libertarian inclinations. “I’m for staying out of other people’s business,” she said, and told me she was surprised by Barack Obama’s continuation of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. I’ll bet Barack Obama was surprised too.

 

I met the libertarian—a young mother who homeschools her three kids—at the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers (CNHT) annual picnic on July 10 in Hillsborough.

CNHT is a twelve-year-old umbrella operation, friendly to Tea Party movement notions. The chairman, Ed Naile, made the crowd laugh by showing off a certificate that the Heritage Foundation had awarded to the New Hampshire Tea Party. Because the Heritage Foundation couldn’t figure out who ran the New Hampshire Tea Party, the award had to be sent to the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers.

About five hundred people were at the picnic. Thirty interest groups, political organizations, and state and federal candidates had booths, tables, or, at the least, literature to hand out. That was 16½ people per cause. Assuming that many of the picnickers were picnicking in an unaffiliated way, some CNHT self-organizers were self-organizing at the most basic level of just the self.

The New Hampshire Liberty Alliance was there and the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire, Granite State Taxpayers, the New Hampshire House Republican Alliance, and New Hampshire Families for Education. A pro-life group and a pro-gun group were present but so was the New England Organ Bank, promoting organ donations. (And maybe the last two should get together—there’s a bumper sticker in there somewhere.)

I did not see any sidearms being worn or anyone acting more oddly than we residents of New Hampshire usually do. The crowd looked randomly New Hampshire–like, minus perhaps the sandal-and-candle types (although several mandala tattoos were visible).

The political candidates who spoke at the picnic had a hard time making themselves heard over the voice of the people—which, from a Tea Party point of view, is as it should be. A thousand hamburgers and hot dogs were being eaten by cheerful, chatty folks vigorously agreeing with each other that the government has gotten out from under us.

“We’re a very broad-based association, like a big family,” said one of the picnic’s organizers. “Of course,” she added, “we have our family spats.”

None were apparent. Ed Naile introduced the speakers, saying, “We want small, effective government with low taxes and free enterprise. It’s simple.”

The politicians were given polite, if not attentive, receptions. One grizzled veteran of the fight against taxes in the New Hampshire legislature went on at length about the dictionary definition of socialism. Some shushing was heard in deference to his political battle scars. A fellow running for I’m-not-sure-what worried that the gold standard wasn’t standard anymore. Even a member of the political “establishment” was treated with courtesy. Charlie Bass (who happens to be my friend and neighbor) was the longtime Republican congressman from New Hampshire’s 2nd District. He’s hoping to be elected again. Bass, although a fiscal conservative, gets Tea Party grief for the amount of money that the Republicans managed to spend while in control of Congress. He told the crowd that right down the road there was an old stone bridge to nowhere over nothing being restored with our stimulus funds and was applauded.

But no one had much to say about foreign policy. Bob Giuda, also running for the Republican nomination in the 2nd District, did mention the cost of the war on terrorism. Considering that the TSA line at O’Hare cost me two hours of my life last week, I’m sure Giuda has a point. But he didn’t elaborate. Another candidate, whose name I didn’t catch, said we should remember the POWs and MIAs. That’s true. But memory isn’t a sure guide to foreign policy. The people who started World War II must have remembered what happened in World War I.

I gathered campaign literature from the candidates who thought a CNHT presence was worth their while—twelve of them (none Democrats). Seven made no reference to foreign policy in their handouts. This was understandable with the two gubernatorial hopefuls. (New Hampshire is not a state that aspires to its own foreign policy—except to deport citizens of Massachusetts who run their boats too fast on Lake Winnipesaukee.)

I suppose some of the campaign material contains implied messages about foreign policy. Jim Bender, vying for the Republican Senate nomination, describes himself as “a turnaround specialist with a proven track record of creating jobs and fixing complex broken organizations.” Creating jobs in foreign policy sounds as uninviting as war or the Peace Corps. But fixing complex broken organizations is more like it, starting with the United Nations.

Frank Guinta, running for Congress in the Republican 1st District primary, wants to “open up and develop existing American energy resources . . . on our soil and off our shores.” This could have foreign policy effects, though I gather from the last phrase that his brochure went to press before BP went to hell. Guinta also wants to “apply a constitutionality test to each and every bill brought before Congress.” One can imagine some ugly arguments about international trade agreements and the interstate commerce clause—with labor unions on the wrong side of the fight.

Peter Bearse, another Republican running in the 1st District, was handing out business cards. He is an economist. And, after all, Adam Smith was right about British foreign policy during the Revolutionary War.

And Karen Testerman, who wants the Republican nomination for governor, is married to a retired Air Force pilot and has had three children in the military, although whether this inclines or disinclines her to interventionalism she doesn’t say.

 

P erhaps it’s contrary to the Tea Party spirit that I’m reporting first on the views of political candidates rather than on the views of their grassroots auditors. But the purpose of the Tea Party movement, as I understand it, is to change the nature of the people elected to political office and to make that change at a local level. These are the people running for political office, and some of them, frankly, are so local that they may never be heard from again outside their own backyards.

Among the candidates who do address foreign policy, Bill Binnie—like Jim Bender, seeking the Republican Senate nomination—says, “We need to stand up to countries like India and China that punish American business and industry with unfair trading practices and shut off aid to foreign countries that pay lip service to being America’s friends.” Adam Smith wouldn’t think much of the first proposal, but there’s no denying the visceral appeal of the second.

Binnie supports defense spending: “Government can protect our way of life through a strong military.” The same is true of Richard Ashooh, in the 1st District Republican race, who promises to “ensure our men and women in uniform have the resources they need to defend our nation.” And Sean Mahoney—Ashooh’s, Guinta’s, and Bearse’s competitor in the 1st District—supports “our service men and women around the world” and is “dedicated to winning the war on terror.” Indeed, Mahoney goes on to say that he “supports the president’s decision to commit additional troops to the war in Afghanistan.”

Ashooh and Mahoney also vow to work for better veterans’ benefits. The military veteran being, alas, what remains after the dust of foreign policy settles.

Ovide Lamontagne, running against Binnie and Bender in the Republican Senate primary, promises better treatment for veterans too, and he takes an even more aggressive international stance than Mahoney. Lamontagne says he will “continue support for our operations against terrorists abroad” and “stand firm against allowing a nuclear Iran to emerge, while supporting our proven allies throughout the world, including our staunch friend Israel.”

In the CNHT picnic’s straw poll, Lamontagne won with one hundred and nine votes, almost half the votes cast. (In case anyone thinks Tea Party movement members are knee-jerk isolationists.)

Chris Booth was also on the straw poll Senate ballot, as an Independent. His brochure emphasizes his Quaker faith: “Quakers are best known for their beliefs in equality and pacifism.” He got two votes.

 

I interviewed some New Hampshire Tea Party supporters. (Again, I use the term too broadly.) They were as perplexed as I am about the relationship between an efficiently minimal government and a foreign policy of maximum effectiveness.

“We’re working from the bottom up,” said one of the state’s popular pro–small government bloggers. “Foreign policy comes from the top down.” He said I’d asked a good question about Tea Party foreign policy “because foreign policy has to do with the president. The Tea Party doesn’t influence foreign policy, we influence the people who represent us.” One of whom, he seemed to feel, was not the president.

A Web site designer who volunteers with the CNHT and other organizations pointed out that, in the matter of foreign policy being top-down, even the president isn’t at the top. “The president isn’t the sole person who runs foreign policy,” she said. She mentioned the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission, but she didn’t make them out to be part of some dark conspiracy. She was giving them as examples of the fact that there is such a thing as a foreign policy establishment. The State Department is the example I’d use. The blogger cited the mainstream media and George Soros.

One of the founders of the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition has two sons on active duty in the military. When asked about foreign policy, he said there’s “no easy way to answer.” He said he “didn’t want to use the word ‘rational.’” He realized that foreign policy has to deal with irrational people and things. “It really will depend on elections,” he said. “If the country swings to a constitutional/libertarian government there’ll be a move toward congressional control of foreign policy.” He wondered if we wouldn’t be better off to “let the people decide, instead of the experts.” But he didn’t venture a guess as to what decision the people would make.

Foreign policy opinions in the Tea Party are “wide, wide-ranging,” said the Web designer, “everything from ‘nuke Iran’ to the Ron Paul people who want to pull everyone out of everywhere to Rand Paul who’s more in the middle ground and wants an active foreign policy but says it’s a question of money.”

What it doesn’t appear to be is a question of America’s founding principles. No one told me that current American foreign policy violates the Constitution. And I was talking to people who are keenly alert to violations of the Constitution.

A supporter of the 9/12 Project said, “To me ‘small government’ means the federal government shrinking to the size necessary to execute only the enumerated, authorized powers. . . . Included in these enumerated powers is the authority to raise an army, conduct foreign diplomacy, and to establish treaties.” He went on to say, “I often wonder what our economic condition would be if we focused more on securing our borders and less on expensive foreign engagements.” But he added, “I don’t believe we should be isolationist. Protection of America would still involve some foreign military presence, which is authorized by the Constitution. If we completely retract our military from the world stage, and only focus on our borders . . . we may see a reprise of the pre–World War Two growth of fascism.”

President Obama, as the man in charge of U.S. foreign policy, seems to be regarded as not so much wrong, exactly, as feeble and silly. The blogger said, “Obama is a joke with foreigners. Obviously he doesn’t have the
experience.”

The Tea Party founder decried Obama’s “slamming of America” and called the president’s foreign policy “determined weakness.” He didn’t care for Obama’s international equilateralism. “If America’s not going to be the economic engine of the world, then who will be?” And he asked, “Why not us as the number one superpower?”

The blogger said almost exactly the same: “Obama is suggesting that America step back from being number one. Well, who will be number one?”

 

A weak America is a bad idea. And there’s one other area of general Tea Party agreement on foreign policy, albeit a very domestic part of foreign policy—illegal immigration. After I’d had a long phone conversation with the blogger, mostly about philosophy of government, he called back to say that opposition to illegal immigration was the one Tea Party foreign policy position that he could definitely specify. “Get the border sealed,” he said. “No amnesty for illegals. Make sure the criminals
are sent back and stay there.”

The 9/12er noted that the Constitution “includes the power to protect our borders from invasion” and “illegal immigration is an invasion, in my opinion.”

No one used any words of prejudice, however, or hurtful, insensitive language. When your preferred senatorial candidate is named Ovide Lamontagne, there’s not much room for xenophobia.

Lamontagne himself condemns illegal emigration. His brochure says, “I pledge that I will work tirelessly to end illegal immigration.”
Fellow Senate candidate Bill Binnie promises to “secure our border—that’s just common sense. No driver’s licenses for illegals. No granting of amnesty.” Then his flyer goes on to announce that Binnie is “the proud son of immigrants.”

Congressional candidate Sean Mahoney claims he “will fight to ensure the federal government funds and finishes the fence along the border to keep illegal aliens out.” But Mahoney prefaces this by saying that he “is a strong supporter of legal immigration and views a legal, orderly immigration system as essential to the growth and development of our nation’s economy.”

Slightly angry about immigration, slightly conflicted about immigration—this sounds more like America in general than the Tea Party specifically. The governor of Arizona is not a member.

 

F oreign policy is full of conundrums. In particular there is a conundrum in finding solutions to foreign policy problems when it’s not clear what the problems are. About this Tea Party supporters show a clarity of thought separate from a lack of consensus.

The blogger held out hope that the Tea Party is going global. He and the Tea Party founder both noted the irony, at the G-20 summit, of the president of free-market America telling European socialists to spend more while the European socialists were telling America to cut its deficit.

“We have a long way to go,” said the blogger. “Until we can fix the problems in our own backyard we can’t fix things over the pond. How can we have a foreign policy when we don’t have a policy that works for ourselves? It’s not going to happen in one election. It’s not going to happen in two elections. We’re looking at a hundred-year project. It’s going to take fifty years to get back to Reagan.”

“What we’re losing,” said the Tea Party founder, “is the idea that our rights come from God. If we went back to that our foreign policy would be different—because of our duty for stewardship of those rights.” His hope is that there will be a “group of people coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan that knows —knows what the military can do and can’t do.” One of his sons had been in Afghanistan. When the son came home and saw the Tea Party protests he said, “Here we are fighting a huge central government. And what are we trying to impose on Afghanistan?”

In our foreign policy, “balance needs to be achieved,” said the 9/12er. And he didn’t mean “balance of power” in the Nixon/Kissinger/Carter sense.

The Web designer said, “If we cannot win—get out. If we can win—do it.”

“When it’s necessary, do it right,” said the Tea Party founder. “We may argue or bicker among ourselves. But if we’re attacked, watch out.”

Simplistic, by the standards of the State Department (or the Trilateral Commission), but there are simple aspects to the biggest complexities. If the Tea Party movement, so-called, achieves “small, effective government with low taxes and free enterprise,” America will be a much richer nation. A much richer nation will have a much more powerful foreign policy, whether it means to or wants to or not.

P. J. O’Rourke is a political satirist, author, and correspondent for the Weekly Standard.

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