Much is being said and written about the impact of the government closure and debt crisis on everything from workers’ salaries, to the availability of statistics that are critical for the management of businesses and farms, to the slowing of economic growth, to the weakening of America’s overall financial position at home and abroad. There has been far less focus on effect of the Washington stalemate on American national security, not merely in terms of the size, shape and composition of the defense budget, but, more generally, on international perceptions of American stability and reliability in light of the scorched earth policies of the Tea Party and its Congressional sympathizers.
It is not just that foreign diplomats, officials and analysts echo a common question and a uniform manta about what has been going on in Washington, the question being, “what is wrong with you people” and the mantra, “you have all gone mad.” It is that the ability of the military to engage with its counterparts overseas, a key element in America’s alliance strategy, is being seriously compromised.
A prime example was the last-minute cancellation in early October of the International Seapower Symposium in Newport, RI, for the want of a few hundred thousand dollars that were unavailable as a result of the shutdown. The ISS, as it is called, is the world's largest meeting of world naval leaders, involving over one hundred commanders of foreign navies. The cancellation not only embarrassed the Department of Defense, the Navy, and, of course, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, but also robbed him of the precious opportunity to advance naval cooperation with America’s allies and friends.
Political pundits tend to argue that the Tea Party’s adherents are isolationist and therefore are indifferent to America’s international relations. That is not entirely correct. Senator Ted Cruz, whose meteoric rise as a public figure owes much, if not all, to his Tea Party sympathies, recently was honored by an ultra-pro-Israel group called EMET with its “Speaker of the Truth Award,” for “daring to stand with Israel.”
The issue is not a matter of ideological isolationism but rather of pure and utter ignorance. The Congressional Tea Party crowd simply does not understand that American prosperity depends on its security; that its security depends on its ability to preserve a stable world order; that its ability to do so depends on maintaining and sustaining its relations with allies and friends; and that, in turn, depends on their perception of American reliability and consistency. By forcing the government into crisis on a quarterly basis, the Tea Party is reducing the United States to the equivalent of the Fourth French Republic; a nation with whom agreements were always in jeopardy because governments stood and fell with unnerving regularity.
Some long-standing American allies and friends may tolerate Congressional behavior as a peculiar Washington peccadillo, but others may not. In particular, Asian states, already doubtful that there will ever be an American “pivot” to their part of the world, may become more willing to give way to China, including its claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea. Some Middle Eastern allies may seek to enhance their relations with Iran, as is already the case with Turkey. Others in the region may increasingly look to Russia and China as their primary arms suppliers, thereby reducing America’s ability to support what is left of a stable Middle Eastern order, and, for that matter, to help deter threats against Israel, for whose defense Senator Cruz wins awards. Even some European states may seek to accommodate an increasingly assertive Russia, given their perception of American unreliability.
There only way to stop the Congressional Tea Party coterie from undermining American security, is for Republicans both in and out of Congress to push back against this increasingly disruptive force. In particular, neoconservatives and Republican realists, who differ on so many issues, must recognize that they both share a commitment to American leadership abroad that the extreme Right is beginning to undermine. Most internationalist Republicans, of whatever stripe, have serious disagreements with the Obama administration’s foreign policy; they believe that it has created an image of an uncertain and weak America. The Tea Party is reinforcing that image in spades. With time, Republicans will be in a position to reverse the administration’s policies, much as Ronald Reagan reversed those of Jimmy Carter; but Republicans can ill afford to wait while the Tea Party does so much damage to America’s status as the leader of the Free World that it will be beyond repair.
Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as DoD's civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.