Will the force that put Republicans back in power take its inspiration from Sarah Palin or Ron Paul?

By Leon Hadar

Since the inception of the Tea Party movement, pundits–including yours truly–have been trying to deconstruct the foreign policy direction of what is a coalition of many local and national groups, all of which seem to share a commitment to a libertarian economic policy agenda.

Indeed, a recent study prepared by the Cato Institute refutes the popular notion that the movement is dominated by social-cultural conservatives. As David Kirby and Emily Ekins point out, “Libertarian attitudes are fueling roughly half the tea party activists” who believe that “‘the less government the better’ and don’t see a role for government in promoting ‘traditional values.'” This is a big reason “why the movement has largely focused on economic matters, resisting attempts to add social issues to its agenda,” the two analysts note.

“Tea party libertarians are somewhat younger, better educated and almost twice as likely to ‘never’ go to church than tea party conservatives,” Kirby and Ekins write. “On the issues, tea party libertarians are less concerned than conservatives about the moral direction of the country, gay marriage, immigration, job outsourcing and abortion,” they conclude.

That split between libertarian and conservative tea partiers has been noted by other observers who have described it as a division between two camps: yhe conservatives who support former Alaska Governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the libertarians who back Texas congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Interestingly enough, the main ideological split between Palin and Paul has less to with the social-conservative agenda and more with the direction of American foreign policy. “As many frustrated Americans who have joined the Tea Party realize, we cannot stand against big government at home while supporting it abroad,’ Paul posted recently on ForeignPolicy.com. Tea partiers cannot talk about fiscal responsibility, the budget deficit, and spiraling domestic spending while giving a green light to “spending trillions on occupying and bullying the rest of the world” and “without looking at the costs of maintaining an American empire of more than 700 military bases in more than 120 foreign countries.” Tea partiers cannot pat themselves on the back “for cutting a few thousand dollars from a nature preserve or an inner-city swimming pool at home while turning a blind eye to a Pentagon budget that nearly equals those of the rest of the world combined, ” he stressed.

Not surprisingly, Paul and other libertarian figures and organizations opposed the Iraq War and a possible war with Iran, and called for military disengagement from Afghanistan. On the other hand, Palin has been repeating the neoconservative foreign policy mantra since the day she was selected as John McCain’s running mate: America needs to spread freedom worldwide, stay the course in Iraq, use military power against Iran, get tough with Russia, and give to the Generals in the Pentagon all the money they want. Moreover, Palin and former Arkansas Governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, another favorite of the conservative wing of the Tea Party movement, also echo certain messianic overtones in their rhetoric about the Middle East and Israel; they seem to envision a long and costly civilizational struggle with Islam at home and abroad that would not only consume enormous military and economic resources, but would also strengthen the power of the federal government.

During the election campaign most of the Republican candidates, and especially those backed by the Tea Party, refrained from endorsing any coherent foreign policy agenda as advocated by either Paul or Palin. If anything, their responses to questions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and about America’s role in the world in general were very confused. When pressed for her position on Iraq and Afghanistan, the former Republican Senate candidate from Nevada Sharon Angle explained that “you know, the two wars that we are in right now are exactly what we are in.” And here is what Ken Buck, the former Republican Senate candidate from Colorado had to say about Afghanistan. “The first thing I think we need to do is to make sure that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for terrorists,” Buck stated during a debate. “And when I say safe haven, I’m not talking about that there isn’t a possibility of a terrorist in Afghanistan. I’m saying that when you look at other countries similarly situated–Somalia, Yemen, other countries–that Afghanistan is at least as safe as those countries,” he explained.

The focus of many of these and other Tea Party candidates that were elected (or not) to Congress has been almost entirely on the economy. They are either uninterested in–or not knowledgeable enough about–Afghanistan, Iraq and the other U.S. military interventions that are consuming such a huge part of the federal budget. Under these circumstances, the foreign policy agenda of the Congressional Republicans could end up being dominated by those Republicans who are very interested in the issues, and who receive their talking points on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Russia from interest groups, think tanks and media organizations that support costly military interventionist policies around the world–and who are inclined to exploit Palin’s jingoistic rhetoric to rally the Republican troops.

The danger is that those Republican Tea Party members of Congress who are less inclined to focus on foreign policy issues will yield to the guidance and pressure coming from the leading Republican foreign-policy activists.  These “Palinites” will probably try to integrate their militaristic and interventionist approach into the grand anti-Obama narrative, which depicts the president as “un-American,” weak, and defeatist in his dealing with Iran and Islamofascism, and an enemy of the Jewish State.

Let’s hope that libertarians and conservatives who understand the relationship between U.S. interventionist policies and the rising U.S. federal deficits will succeed in neutralizing this danger by explaining to the new generation of Republican lawmakers that any effort to reduce the power of the federal government will have to include major cuts in military spending. And that will require a rejection of the policies that rationalize these expenditures.

Leon Hadar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.