Home/Daniel Larison/The Tea Party and the War Party

The Tea Party and the War Party

Jim Antle has an interesting article in the August edition of TAC on the possibility that Tea Partiers’ fiscal conservatism could encourage them to adopt antiwar or at least less interventionist foreign policy views. Antle writes:

But what Rand Paul has done is make the one antiwar argument with potential to resonate with more conventional conservatives: “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.” Unlike the Right’s past tax revolts, the Tea Party is animated by opposition to the exorbitant level of federal spending and indebtedness. With their rejection of Republican bailouts and “compassionate conservatism,” they have turned away from the neoconservatives’ social-democratic roots. By applying their frugality to foreign policy, they could make a clean break from neoconservatism.

I’d like to think Antle is right, but I find this hard to square with most Tea Partiers’ apparent enthusiasm for Sarah Palin. In fairness to Jim, he could not have taken Palin’s latest remarks on military spending into account when writing his article, but Palin’s rejection of cuts in military spending suggests that many of Palin’s enthusiasts among the Tea Partiers are likewise going to insist on exempting this spending. It’s just one more reminder that Palin’s involvement with Tea Party activists is as much an effort to co-opt and neutralize them as it is to mobilize them. It is also a way of using their concerns to promote herself. Palin’s remarks should also remind us that many of the “conservatives who want a strong national defense without bankrupting America” aren’t willing to scale back their definition of what constitutes a “strong national defense” in order to help prevent national bankruptcy.

Some of Palin’s remarks might seem unobjectionable to many conservatives and many Americans from across the political spectrum at first glance. At one point, she said this:

We must make sure, however, that we do nothing to undermine the effectiveness of our military. If we lose wars, if we lose the ability to deter adversaries, if we lose the ability to provide security for ourselves and for our allies, we risk losing all that makes America great.

That sounds reasonable enough if you don’t think about it too much. After all, who is going to argue against an “effective” military and in favor of losing wars and a lack of security? Of course, such remarks conceal much more than they reveal. When Palin says we should not “undermine the effectiveness of our military,” she has no intention of scaling back the ambitions of U.S. policy overseas that put enormous demands on the military. She also has no interest in ending large-scale deployments overseas that overstretch the armed forces and damage the military’s ability to recruit and retain soldiers. There is no hint that she would be more reluctant to resort to force against other states or perceived non-state threats, and there is also nothing to suggest that she has a sober view of the extent and nature of foreign threats directed against the United States.

One “effective military” will differ wildly from another depending on what the government expects it to do, and unless U.S. policy goals are significantly reduced in number and in terms of difficulty an “effective military” would probably cost even more than current spending levels. The “ability to deter adversaries” will grow or shrink depending on how many adversaries you believe America has and how powerful and threatening you believe them to be. Based on everything Palin has said over the last two years, she thinks we have a large number of very powerful adversaries. Hence she insists on building up absurd levels of conventional military superiority:

Secretary Gates recently spoke about the future of the U.S. Navy. He said we have to ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 [billion] to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines and $11 billion carriers. He went on to ask, ‘Do we really need . . . more strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?’ ” Palin said. “Well, my answer is pretty simple: Yes, we can and yes, we do, because we must.

We must? This probably would have seemed unreasonable at the height of the Cold War, and now it is simply absurd and completely irresponsible. Will Tea Party activists and politicians sympathetic to their goals speak out and reject this? Maybe they will prove me wrong, but I don’t see that happening.

There was a sentence at the end of the first quote that I omitted the first time, because once it is included Palin’s superficially reasonable statement is shown to be fanatical: “That is a price we cannot afford to pay.” In other words, any amount of exorbitant spending on the military can and must be tolerated because the alternative price is unaffordable. Thanks to this sort of alarmism and demagoguery, unaffordable levels of military spending and completely unnecessary, ruinous commitments around the globe come to be seen as both necessary and relatively inexpensive. The real question is whether fiscal sanity and responsibility to our country’s future count for more with these activists than satisfaction derived from America’s superpower status.

P.S. By the way, I am calling a foul on Josh Rogin’s description of neoconservatives as “pro-defense” when defense is often the last thing they’re concerned about. It’s just this sort of sloppy, casual labeling of aggressive militarists as “pro-defense” that helps make the military budget untouchable and makes cuts in the Pentagon’s budget politically radioactive, since anyone who opposes them will inevitably be tagged as “anti-defense.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles