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: The conservatives who support former Alaska Governor and vice‐presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the libertarians who back Representative from Texas 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 and about 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 like other libertarian figures and organizations, including the Cato Institute opposed the Iraq War and a possible war with Iran and has 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, to stay the course in Iraq, to use military power against Iran, to get tough with Russia, and to 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 in their rhetoric about the Middle East and Israel certain messianic overtones that 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 movement refrained from endorsing any coherent foreign policy agenda along the lines of the positions advocated by either Paul or Palin. If anything, their responses to questions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and about U.S. role in the world in general were at times 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 problem is that 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 and that they are either uninterested in, or not knowledgeable enough about Afghanistan, Iraq and 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 that are very interested in, and knowledgeable about the issues, that receive their talking points on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Russia from interest groups, think tanks and media organizations that support a costly military interventionist policies around the world, and that are inclined to exploit the Palin’s jingoistic rhetoric to rally the Republican troops behind their policies.
The danger is that the tendency of those Republican Tea Party members of Congress who are less inclined to focus on foreign policy issues would be to yield to the guidance and pressure coming from the leading Republican foreign‐policy activists and “Palinites” who 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 conservative 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 the rejection of the policies that rationalize these expenditures.