Tea Party grapples with US role in the Middle East

(By Deutsche Welle) As the Republican presidential primary intensifies and turmoil in the Mideast simmers, Tea Party candidates are venturing beyond their focus on the economy and articulating their views on America’s role in the world.

As the Republican presidential primary gets into full swing, the grassroots conservative Tea Party movement has made its voice heard at an early stage. In Iowa, populist candidate Michele Bachmann and libertarian Ron Paul came in first and second respectively in a preliminary poll seen as a test of campaign strength, beating out establishment candidates such as Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who subsequently quit the contest.

Although foreign policy has been largely overshadowed by the dismal state of the American economy, political upheaval in the Middle East has forced increasingly prominent Tea Party-associated candidates to articulate clearer positions on the US role in the world as the battle for front-runner status escalates.

“The Tea Party did not arise out of a concern with foreign policy,” Stephen Walt, an expert on US foreign policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told Deutsche Welle.

“You haven’t seen them articulate or weigh in a well-defined foreign policy position in the way you have seen them weigh in on the budget battle and on health care.”

Tea Party divide

According to Walt, in its early days the Tea Party movement had a strong libertarian streak under the leadership of figures such as Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who rejected the Bush administration’s costly nation building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, advocating instead a strict policy of non-interventionism.

“There were certainly a number of early Tea Party spokesmen who had a very isolationist view of American foreign policy,” Walt said. “That we should stop running around the world intervening and stop supporting all these ungrateful allies and concentrate our attention here at home.”

Marion Smith, a foreign policy expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C., believes the libertarian movement within the Tea Party represents a minority voice that has gained media attention due to the majority’s silence.

“Most Tea Partiers are Reagan-esque almost in their views on foreign policy, meaning a strong national defense and an appreciation for a president that stands up for America’s values abroad,” Smith told Deutsche Welle.

As the Tea Party gains political prominence by hammering elected officials in Washington for their response to the financial crisis, more traditional socially conservative politicians such as Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry have aligned themselves with the movement and expressed support for a robust American role in the world.

“Both Bachmann and Perry favor a very hawkish foreign policy, certainly with respect to the Middle East both are unconditionally supportive of Israel,” Walt said. “They are very critical of any effort to put pressure on Israel to allow the creation of a Palestinian state.”

Grappling with the Mideast

According to Walt, this unconditional support has a religious foundation among many Christian conservatives, such as American radio talk show star Glenn Beck, who recently held a rally in Jerusalem in support of Israel called “Restoring Courage.”

“That’s based on – for the Christian right – a theological justification,” said Walt, who co-authored the 2007 book “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.” “That the United States should support Israel because that’s what the Bible tells us to do.”

Practical Washington politics also plays a role in the support for Israel, according to Walt. Well-organized groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) pressure politicians to adopt pro-Israel policies. During the current congressional recess, more than 80 members of Congress are visiting Israel, including 47 freshmen representatives, or half of the Republicans voted into office during the 2010 midterm elections.

“One-fifth of the US Congress went to visit a country whose population is less than that of New York City,” Walt said.

Although there are members of the Tea Party who believe all foreign aid should be cut, including the $3 billion (2 billion euros) annual grant to Israel, Smith believes that the Tea Party mainstream generally supports Israel for both cultural and strategic reasons.

“(It’s) a common sense recognition that in the Mideast Israel is an ally, it behaves like an ally and it is also a liberal democracy, something that is unique in the region,” Smith said. “There is also a recognition that Israel does not have many allies and that the US alliance with Israel is beneficial to both Israel and the US.”

Going mainstream

Since the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring and the subsequent American intervention in Libya, the Tea Party has generally taken a skeptical stance toward military involvement in the region, particularly in light of the unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The movement, however, remains divided over whether such skepticism should be equivalent to the dogmatic non-interventionism preached by politicians such as Ron Paul.

“In discussing whether or not we should intervene in a particular case, are we going to look to a principle of prudence, meaning that we as a nation or as the movement look at a particular circumstance and see that we can make a difference for the better and it’s prudently in our interests and in keeping with our principles to do so?” Smith asked

“Or are we going to invoke another principle of non-interventionism that applies to all times and all situations?”

As the Republican primary continues, Walt believes the candidates will continue to appeal to the Tea Party’s hot button issues, such as the debt and deficit, while adopting more mainstream views on foreign policy in order to reassure the broader, centrist public.

“Whoever emerges as sort of the front runners in the presidential race will start pulling in advisors and have to start forming positions on foreign policy,” Walt said.

“Those positions are going to be formed primarily by familiar faces in the foreign policy establishment rather than a freshman congressman who was elected with Tea Party support.”

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