The Tea Party, Foreign Policy, and the Politics of Real Change

I’ve spent more than a few columns predicting that the so-called tea partiers – the grassroots populist movement that has our liberal elites in a frothy-mouthed lather – will be logically led to call for major cuts in military spending – and, by the sheer logic of their anti-spending, “anti-government” position, eventually come to challenge our foreign policy of global intervention. The other day, as I listened to a fascinating panel discussion on Warren Olney‘s KCRW radio show To the Point on defense spending and deficit reduction, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing my prediction come true – a lot sooner, I have to admit, than I ever imagined.

The participants were Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, William Hartung of the New America Foundation, Stephen J. Walt, a professor of foreign affairs at the Kennedy School of Government and author of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, and Chris Littleton, co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council and a committed member of the “Tea Party” movement. Go here to listen.

The program opens with Olney wheeling out that famous Eisenhower critique of the military-industrial complex, and Hertzberg noting that Ike said this while he was on his way out, not when he was in a position to do anything about it. Hertzberg went on to say that the reason for the reluctance to cut the military budget is the fear of being thought of as “soft on defense.” Oh sure, he continued, there are some “heretical” Republicans, like Ron Paul and Rand Paul – but the latter, as far as Hertzberg seems to know, “stopped uttering” those “heretical words” after he got the Republican nomination. Seems like Hertzberg is not a reader of this column, otherwise he would know that there’s a third chapter to that story, because in one of the first interviews he gave after being elected to the Senate, Paul the younger clearly said defense – and our be-everywhere-fight-everyone foreign policy – is on the table.

It was hard to miss the faint albeit clear note of condescending disdain in Hertzberg’s tone when he spoke of the Pauls, no doubt based the assumption that they’re marginal figures with little influence beyond their own movement, which is why I imagine he must have been thunderstruck upon hearing what the next guest had to say.

Littleton, when asked if the military budget could be and should be subjected to cuts, was emphatic: The Pentagon, he said, has to be cut. “Not should be – it must be. It is a fundamental necessity.” Yes, said Olney, but what about national security? Littleton’s answer went right to the heart of the matter: we need to look at our foreign policy, and completely reevaluate our present course. “Why,” he asked, “are we still fighting the Korean War? Why do we have troops in over 150 countries? We have no business playing world police: let’s get out of the world police business.” Financial solvency is a national security matter.

Olney, clearly a bit surprised at the vigor and conviction of Littleton’s anti-interventionist views – coming from a professed conservative, or, at least, a non-liberal – asked how many of his fellow tea partiers would agree with him. Littleton was quite upfront about the division this creates in his ranks: “This is a split issue for a lot of people in the tea party. There’s a pretty significant divide.“ He went on to characterize the interventionist faction as being tied to the Republican party machine (hello Dick Armey!), while the more ideological types – i.e. libertarians, constitutionalists, and other grassroots activists uninfected by the neoconservative spore – want to start dismantling the Empire and return to the old Republic.

The reaction from the other guests – all of them conventional liberals – was quite interesting. Hertzberg’s disdain was palpable. He proffered that “It’s unusual for me to be agreeing with a member of the tea party,” and hastened to add that his reasons for being in favor of cutting the military were quite different from Littleton’s: “It isn’t because we don’t have the money: I believe the money should be spent elsewhere.” Government, it appears, must never be cut: and if, by some chance, it is cut back, then it must grow somewhere else. The defense establishment is an anachronism, he argued, based on outdated cold war assumptions. But this argument is itself outdated, for the new American militarism is clearly devoted to fighting guerrilla insurgencies and maintaining occupations, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hertzberg also referred to “libertarian isolationism” as if it were some exotic disease.

While Professor Walt basically agreed with Littleton’s arguments, he distanced himself by saying that “I wouldn’t go that far” in terms of scaling down America’s overseas commitments. That’s what was most striking about this little session: the libertarian was the most radical, the most willing to challenge the comfortable assumptions of both left and right, and easily the most optimistic. The overwhelming sense one got from the others was that change would be next to impossible: only Littleton appeared optimistic – and determined.

Littleton is not some isolated individual, he is one of the leaders of a statewide coalition of some thirty tea party groups in Ohio, and there are many thousands like him. The ideological tables are turning, and today it is on the right, not the left, where the action is, where the ferment is, where the challenge to the conventional wisdom dares raise its head. While it is true that some of the most militaristic, nationalistic, and downright unpleasant elements in American politics are to be found on the right side of the political spectrum, there, also, are some of the most hopeful signs of growing resistance to the Warfare State. This is a paradox all too many “progressives” cannot get their minds around, because it defies the dominant left/right paradigm – a way of looking at the world that is outmoded and irrelevant, but, like many dead and useless ideas, persists way beyond its expiration date.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].