THE BLOG
11/09/2010 04:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tea Party at the Pentagon?

It's a cold morning in January 2011. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Rand Paul (R-KY) wake up early to put on their Revolutionary War costumes. They're joined by a miscellaneous group of anti-government protestors, libertarian activists, and all-around hotheads. With their supporters in tow, the tea party movement's Adam and Eve drive to the Pentagon and use their congressional passes to get into the building. They proceed to the office of Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, where the Pentagon plans the future of the huge weapons systems that dominate military spending.

Once in the office, the representatives distract the staff while other tea partiers surreptitiously gather up stacks of memos and files. The theft complete, they back out of the office and exit the Pentagon. The would-be revolutionaries then reconnoiter with several rowboats in the Potomac. They row out into the water, their every move recorded by the reporters on the scene. With the whole world watching, Bachmann and Paul heave the Pentagon papers into the water. It's just a symbolic act, like the Boston activists and their 18th-century tea-dumping. Dropping an F-17 fighter jet into the Potomac would make a bigger splash. But the activists have made their point.

"We're against big government," they declare. "And the Pentagon is as big as it gets."

This is a nice fantasy, isn't it? Some libertarian Republicans no doubt indulged in a similar fantasy back in 2000 when George W. Bush promised a more modest U.S. foreign policy based on his vision of limited government. And today, a libertarian-progressive alliance to cut Pentagon spending and end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq remain beckons, shimmering, on the horizon.

Rand Paul, the insurgent ophthalmologist from Kentucky, continues to sustain this fantasy. During his campaign, he pointed out quite reasonably that cutting social welfare programs won't balance the federal budget. "The truth of the matter is, if you look at the numbers, there's not enough money just in welfare to cut to balance the budget," he said in a campaign video. "You have to look at the entire budget, and approximately 40 percent of that budget is military." In an interview with Christiane Amanpour over the weekend, he reiterated his intention to reduce military spending and bring some U.S. troops home. Republican hardline hawks aren't happy: "his victory is still bad news for Republicans who believe in a strong and active foreign policy," warns Max Boot, the pamphleteer who believes that war is always the answer.

But Paul's views aren't in the Republican mainstream. They're not even consistent with tea party views, to the extent that we can ascertain what those are.

After all, Bachmann, the House's biggest tea party booster, hasn't exactly been expansive regarding foreign policy. But when she ventures an opinion on global affairs, she walks like a hawk and talks like a hawk. For instance, she's predictably apocalyptic about Israel: "I am convinced in my heart and in my mind that if the United States fails to stand with Israel, that is the end of the United States," she said back in February, echoing her "End Times" interpretation of Christianity. In April, she seemed to endorse nuclear deterrence against cyber attacks. Later, she went out of her way to praise a lunatic report on the threat of sharia law on the United States. The report came from arch Cold Warrior Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy and was authored by a team led by William Boykin, the former Pentagon official whose declarations of holy war against Islam embarrassed even the Bush administration. (For an analysis of the new Islamophobia that feeds off the Crusades, the Cold War, and the war on terrorism, read The Lies of Islamophobia, my newTomDispatch column)

Meanwhile, the 40-member tea party caucus Bachmann pulled together in July hasn't gone global either. "The Caucus' most notable (and perhaps only) foray into foreign policy has been to endorse a resolution calling for an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities,"" writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Peter Certo in Focal Points, the FPIF blog.

The war-and-peace views of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the likely new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are more representative of the GOP's foreign policy. In 2008, she voted with the liberal Council for a Livable World's positions only 12 percent of the time. (A procedural vote saved her from a zero ranking.)

It's possible, of course, that the Deficit Commission will change the rules of the game. Its report, due out next month, might uphold Senator-elect Paul's preference for putting the military budget on the chopping block. His father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is the only Republican to join Barney Frank (D-MA) and 55 other members of Congress in urging the commission to "go where the money is."

Or perhaps another big Arctic melt will put part of Ros-Lehtinen's oceanfront district in Florida under water and make her wake up to the reality of global warming. The Obama administration has done a better job than its predecessor in narrowing the gap between military spending and spending on climate change from a 94-to-one ratio to 41 to one. "This is progress, obviously," writes FPIF research fellow Miriam Pemberton in a new report. "But a shift of one percent of the military budget does not come close to bringing climate security investment in line with the magnitude of the threat."

Absent these game-changers, the Republican insurgents aren't about to hurl their small- government rhetoric at the Pentagon. The only likely tea party in the Pentagon's future will be a sedate affair, when Republican leaders sit down with Pentagon heavies over a pot of Earl Grey and discuss how to keep U.S. military spending at the highest levels possible.

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