Jacob Heilbrunn

The Tea Party and the Neocon Triumph

Does the Tea Party have a foreign policy? In Foreign Policy, Peter Baker recently argued that the answer is a resounding no. He argued that the movement has run into the fissures that have traditionally separated interventionist from isolationist advocates on the right.

As Baker put it, 

The question for the movement is whether it can maintain its own uneasy coalition. And for now, at least, that means steadfastly ignoring foreign-policy declarations of any sort. When nearly half a million Tea Party supporters voted online to define their campaign agenda, not a single one of the 10 planks they agreed on had anything to do with the world beyond America's borders. 

I'm not so sure about this. What prompts me to speculate about the Tea Party's fortunes is that both Doug Bandow and Paul Pillar have pieces on this website today arguing that America needs to retrench (Bandow) and that regime change is needed in Israel (Pillar). But my suspicion is that if the Tea Party enters Congress in force, as the New York Times, among others, is currently predicting, the results will not be to the liking of either Bandow or Pillar.

One reason is that imperialism, to use Bandow's term, or liberal interventionism, which I would use (though I suspect Bandow would say that they are one and the same, which is why real conservatives should anathematize the neocons) has been a pretty good ride for the GOP. Its isolationist days in the 1930s didn't really work out that well. In the postwar era, the GOP bashed the Democrats for being soft on communism, particularly in Asia.

Now the war on terrorism has replaced communism as the GOP's trump card (see the mosque debate). Yes, Rand Paul may make a few noises about curbing the military and about pulling out of Afghanistan. But most Tea Party politicians will likely follow the path of Sarah Palin--bash international organizations and champion unilateralism. In fact, the midterm elections should greatly strengthen Palin, who has close ties with William Kristol and other neocons. She must be seen as the presumptive favorite to win the Republican nomination.

Another reason is that while Pillar may wish to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau be dislodged from office (via American pressure?), the Obama administration would be vociferously denounced from the right if it makes any such moves. An emboldened conservative movement, in the aftermath of the midterms, is going to paint President Obama as a traitor on national security and to Israel. Israel's bulwark of support, at least for its current policies, comes not so much from an amorphous "lobby" as from the American right. It's also the case that Netanyahu remains the only man who could deliver a peace deal (though it's not clear that either the Israelis or the Palestinians really want one).

In sum, the midterm elections will not produce change in foreign policy, at least on the right. It won't be more of the same. It will be a lot more of the same. Which is why the neocons, who have astutely supported the Tea Party movement, will retain their supremacy in the GOP when it comes to foreign affairs.