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Leon T. Hadar

Leon T. Hadar

Posted: January 25, 2010 03:02 PM

The Populist Insurgency and Foreign Policy: Why Non-Interventionists are Marginalized?

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The Republican win in the special Senate election in Massachusetts has been compared to a powerful earthquake that could transform U.S. politics as we know it, pointing to a forceful populist uprising that reflects the rage of the economically distressed and politically frustrated American voters who are ready to storm the barricades and get rid of the crooked politicians on Capitol Hill and the Fat Cats in Wall Street.

According to the conventional wisdom, much of this populist fury has been fostered by the members and the groups that constitute the Tea Party movement -- who had backed Republican Scott Brown in the Senate race in Massachusetts -- and have created a political backlash against the growing government intervention in the American economy under President Obama and the Congressional Democrats, that has taken the form of the bailouts of the big banks and the auto companies, the costly fiscal and monetary policies (the economic stimulus program and the injection of liquidity into the financial system), and of course, the much derided health-care reform plan.

It is not surprising that Americans who according to opinion polls are feeling worried about unemployment, the value of their homes, and the availability of credit are being energized to take political action. What is intriguing, however, is that at a time when the U.S. military has been fighting two very expansive wars in the Broader Middle East (Afghanistan and Iraq -- and soon perhaps another one with Iran) while terrorism continues to be seen as a threat to American security, the populist insurgents seem to have been relatively silent when it comes to dead-end American foreign policy and the high costs in blood and treasure of the never-ending U.S. global interventionism. They have been castigating the political and economic elites -- as they should. But why do the foreign policy and military elites seem to be immune to the wrath of the new populists?

Interestingly enough, opinion polls indicate that most Americans are growing disenchanted with American global interventionism. Indeed, when Americans were asked in a recent survey of American attitudes conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), whether the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally," 49 percent said they agreed with that sentiment. That was up sharply from 30 percent in 2002, and was the highest reading found since the Gallup Survey first asked the question in 1964. These results seem to be compatible with the findings in other opinion polls that reflect continuing public disillusionment with the Iraq War and a clear support for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from both Mesopotamia and Afghanistan.

So in a way, it seems that as many Americans are unhappy with Wall Street's bailout and the health care reform bill as they are with the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet while the domestic policy issues seemed to have been the focus of the debate during the Senate race in Massachusetts, America's wars have received much less attention. If anything, the Republican Brown ended-up attacking Obama's foreign policy from a more pro-interventionist perspective when he called for sending all the additional troops that General Stanley McChrystal had requested.

Similarly, some of the stars of the Tea Party movement like former Alaska Governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and news show host Glenn Beck have accused President Obama of projecting weakness in dealing with the threat of terrorism and have appealed for more assertive U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran, North Korea and Russia. At the same time, another political figure that has been much admired by many of the new populists is Dr. Ron Paul,Dr. Ron Paul (I served as one of his foreign policy advisors during the campaign), the Republican-libertarian Representative from Texas who has been a staunch opponent of the decision to invade Iraq and has called for U.S. military disengagement from the Middle East as well as from other parts of the world -- not to mention his long-time criticism of much the rising power of the National Security State.

It is possible that one of the main reasons why foreign policy issues, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not dominated the tea Party events has to do with the fact that new populists may have strong disagreements over the role that the United States should play in the world as well as over immigration and trade and social-cultural issues. Hence, my sense (which is based more on anecdotal evidence than on the results of any major opinion poll) is that while most of the new insurgents project a Lou Dobbs-kind of attitude on immigration, the Perot-type populists among them have been supportive of a more economist nationalist approach on global trade issues -- like many progressive populists on the political left -- and of a less interventionist foreign policy, not unlike the followers of Ron Paul among the Tea Party members (On social-cultural issues, "Peroites" and "Paulites" very much like left-wing progressives tend to embrace a more liberal/libertarian perspective in contrast to the Sara Palin wing of the Tea Party that includes members of the religious right).

If we apply the foreign policy typology proposed by diplomatic scholar Walter Russell Mead it would be safe to argue that there are very few Wilsonians aka neoconservatives fantasizing about the democratization of the Middle East or Hamiltonians seeking to promote U.S. business interests abroad among the Tea Partiers. Instead, one could suggest that most of the new populists are either nationalist Jacksonians - who have no problem using force in defense of the country but are opposed to launching ideological global crusades -- or the more isolationist Jeffersonians - who are worried about the negative effects that foreign interventions would have on America's political and economic freedoms.

While the non-interventionist/ Jeffersonian approach represented by Paul and other libertarian figures and outlets and the populist/Jacksonian position advocated by the Peroites and Pat Buchanan may be popular among the new populists, the main reason that they have failed to have more of an impact on the right-wing populist insurgents has to do with the strong influence of the elites controlling the Republican Party and the official conservative movement -- as opposed to, say, the views represented in The American Conservative magazine(I write for it) - which continue to promote the interventionist foreign policy principles advocated by the neocons and the religious right with their emphasis on the need to escalate the war against "Islamofascism," That explains why the majority of the Republicans and conservatives are still in favor of an interventionist U.S. foreign policy, a reality that is not going to change until the Jacksonians and the Jeffersonians start using their intellectual and political resources to advance their agenda.

Unfortunately for President Obama and the Democrats, the White House's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan and to pursue a Bush/neoconservative-Lite foreign policy makes it difficult for them to try to exploit the populist sentiments by trying to project a less interventionist foreign policy.

 
 
 

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