So Obama took the ‘thumpin’’ that W got back in 2006. I find this unfortunate generally, because I believe the GOP is still unreconstructed from the dark days of George W Bush. Yes, the Democrats are protectionists tied to rapacious public sector unions, but the anti-science, jingoistic GOP is worse. I worked for the GOP on-off throughout the 1990s and cast a heartfelt vote for Bob Dole. But when Bush said Jesus was his favorite political philosopher in 2000, he lost my vote, and things went downhill fast – Iraq, torture, ‘big government conservatism’ (ie, debt), Katrina, Rumsfeld, etc. Yet astonishingly, the GOP learned nothing in the wilderness and got even worse after W – which still confounds me – with the rise of Sarah Palin. She and the Fox News set of Hannity and such strike me as astonishingly unserious; I recall reading that McCain’s people had to explain to Palin why there are two Koreas! With their capacious, uncompromising rhetoric of freedom or American power and awesomeness, I just can’t image them actually doing the hard, compromising business of government.
So on their big day of triumph, that is my ultimate question about the Tea Partiers – American exceptionalists in the extreme – about foreign policy. Consider:
1. Tea Partiers worry about debt, but nothing bloats out government like defense. The combined budget for national security is around $1 trillion, if one includes intelligence, veterans affairs, some relevant homeland security spending, and the Department of Energy’s control of US nukes with the traditional DoD budget. I just saw Rand Paul on CNN. In his acceptance speech he talked about freedom from socialism and crushing debt, but as Andrew Sullivan identified months ago about the movement generally, Paul did not mention what he will cut. And none of them seem prepared to say that Defense really needs to go on a big diet, unless you want to start cutting Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security.
Defense plus M/M/SS are 80%+ of the budget, so something’s got to give. Is the Tea Party ready to chop defense as the Brits just finally admitted was necessary? I don’t see this, given how super-nationalist the Tea Partiers are. Their rallies were filled with endless paeans to the uniformed soldier. But Americans love M/M/SS entitlements too; no one wants grandma to lose her check either, regardless of their feelings about ‘socialism.’ I would love to see a serious debate inside the GOP, like just happened among Britain’s Tories this fall, on how to square guns-and-butter. That the Tea Party simply will not go into the details and grit on this is why I just don’t believe they’re serious. (Try here for ideas on DoD’s needed diet.) Obama may a ‘socialist’ to them, but I don’t see them proposing what parts of the government to close to save the money. Even WR Mead admits this about the movement.
2. What do the Tea Partiers say about the rise of Asia and the BRICs? Phillip Stephens really nails this, IMO. Obama has tried to push the US to adjust to a world where US power is imperiled by overstretch (from huge debt and two wars) and simultaneously confronted by the ‘rise of the rest,’ ie, the growing wealth and social mobilization of much of the former third world. I don’t mean just China and India either. Lots of places are closing the gap with the US as they get wealthier. Smaller countries too like Turkey, Indonesia, S Korea, South Africa, etc. are all getting wealthier and so more capable of resisting US pressure, forging deals and agreements beyond the US, etc. As I’ve said before, this not the end of American power – only intra-US foolishness like the Iraq War and the debt can do that. But the social and economic modernization of much of the planet through globalization does slowly reduce the US room to maneuver. Hence we have the G-20 now.
Yet I see no recognition of this in the Tea Party, only endlessly repeated neocon/theocon narcissism about America as the greatest country on earth. I really do wish American conservatives would travel more to grasp that they are limits, that God is not an American, that foreigners find this sort of rhetoric deeply insulting, etc. This partly what I meant about the Tea Party simply not being serious. The Tea Parties, so far as I heard and read their stuff, are militant in insisting on Henry Luce-style US exceptionalism. This may make good politics against Obama the non-citizen Muslim, but in the real world, it is is poor training for the serious trade-offs the US faces in a crowded, ‘post-Atlantic’ world, where the US fractions of global GDP and global population are in decline and many foreigners don’t trust us after W.
Shallow, narcissistic talk about how awesome the US is, how it is the greatest force for freedom in the world, or the most amazing place in history is not actually real geopolitical analysis at all. It does nothing to prepare the US electorate for challenges like the Chinese juggernaut, a looming defeat in Afghanistan, a NATO unable and unwilling to fight with the US much at all anymore, climate change, etc. The irony of course is that earlier Republicans did in fact talk seriously about foreign policy. Nixon, Kissinger, Scowcroft, Bush 1 – all spoke realistically about America’s reach. This is exactly what the US needs now given the debt and dysfunction of the GWoT. Hence I like Obama’s more restrained style, such as the Cairo speech. But neoconservatism seems to have replaced realism as the dominant foreign policy ideology of the GOP, and too much of it is easily politicized fantasy to stroke the American ego about our ‘special role.’