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Reading the Tea Leaves: Will the Empire Break Up the Party?

By       Message Medea Benjamin     Permalink
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The Tea Party wants small government, right? Actually, it's not so simple. In fact, there is an ideological schism within the Tea Party that you could drive a Bradley tank through.

On Tax Day, my CODEPINK colleagues and I conducted 50 interviews with Tea Party members about the cost of war and empire. With military spending eating up 20 percent of the federal budget and half of all discretionary spending, we figured that any serious effort to shrink government would have to deal with this bull in the china shop.

While a recent New York Times/CBS poll showed the Tea Partiers to be relatively homogenous group of older, white, mostly males, we found that this group certainly doesn't speak with the same tongue when it comes to the U.S. role in the world. On one side are the neocon interventionists who think the United States is God's gift to the world. On the other side are non-interventionists who want to slay the warfare state. The extreme fissure is bound to upset the tea cart as more Tea Party leaders are forced to articulate their foreign policy positions.

First a bit about our interview process. In Washington DC on Tax Day, we attended the morning FreedeomWorks Liberty Summit, a noon rally, an afternoon rally on Capitol Hill and an evening gathering on the Mall. We clearly identified ourselves, wearing bright pink CODEPINK t-shirts, and politely asked people if we could interview them to see if there might be common ground between the Tea Party and the peace movement.

Many refused to even talk to us, calling us communists, leftists and idiots. One woman spat at me and shouted, "Don't you know that Muslims are trying to take over the world? If it weren't for our military fighting in Afghanistan you wouldn't be standing here asking those stupid questions." Another woman got so hysterical about the question on aid to Israel that she tore up the survey. A few Vietnam vets followed us around screaming "Code Stink, Code Stink"--their breath reeking of booze. They got so aggressive that we had to call the police.

But others were eager to share their thoughts and dialogue with us. One man insisted on taking a group photo to show his buddies back home. "They'll never believe that I actually had a decent conversation with the Pinkos," he laughed. "I wonder if they'll still talk to me!"

We asked six questions dealing with the cost of overseas bases, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, aid to Israel and Egypt, private security contactors, where we could cut the military budget, how those funds should be redirected, and if the left and right could work together on these areas.

In our very small, unscientific sample, the hawks--many of whom were retired military or have close family in the military--outweighed the doves. Take the first question about the 800-plus bases the U.S. military maintains at a cost of over $100 billion a year. Thirty-five of the 50 respondents wanted to keep the bases. "We need those bases to maintain stability in the world. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if we weren't there, the Islamists or the Chinese would jump in," said Bruce Welker, a retired law enforcement officer from Pittsburgh. "I'd hate to see what would happen to the world without our military presence."
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The 15 people who wanted to dismantle the web of foreign military bases included Josh Little, a college student from Alexandria, Virginia. Josh said that his grandfather helped overthrow Hitler, but that was 60 years ago and it was high time for us to leave Germany. "I'd say the same for Japan, Korea and all of Europe. They can take care of themselves."

On Iraq and Afghanistan, most of the people we interviewed were not disturbed by our statistic that every taxpayer had already paid over $7,000 for the wars--and that's before Obama's latest escalation. Seventy percent did not want a quick withdrawal, saying that we had to "finish the job first." One military mom complained that "our ridiculous rules of engagement" were forcing our soldiers to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. "Obama and Congress should butt out and let the military just do the job and get out," snapped Janice Becker from Tampa, Florida, whose son was on his third tour in Afghanistan.

The 30 percent wanted to a speedy withdrawal, commenting that President Karzai is corrupt, our presence is creating more insurgents, there's nothing to win or we shouldn't tell others how to run their countries.

The third question was about the billions we spend on aid to Israel and Egypt--the two largest recipients of foreign aid. Foreign aid has long been unpopular, and a recent poll by The Economist showed that a whooping 71 percent of Americans want to cut foreign aid (although few know that it represents less than one percent of the budget) .

You would think that aid would be particularly unpopular within the Tea Party. That was true in the case of Egypt, where 45 out of 50 interviewees preferred cutting aid. "They don't like us anyway, so why should we give them our money?" asked Carey Henderson, a schoolteacher from Boston.
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But when it came to Israel, 80 percent wanted to keep up our $3 billion in aid, even though we pointed out that Israel is a wealthy country. Sarah Wetstone, a DC resident who works for Homeland Security, called Israel "a strawberry in the middle of an ant field" and was upset that Obama was giving Israel a hard time. Karen Omara, a homemaker from Middleton, Ohio, said we should give Israel even more money since they were "God's people" and our only ally in the hostile region. When I asked if she was Jewish, she answered, "In a way, because my Lord and Savior was Jewish." She talked glowingly about her travels to Israel and her support for the Joshua Fund. I later learned that the Joshua Fund was established in 2006 to mobilize Christians to bless Israel in the name of Jesus and that it was committed to "praying for peace, while preparing for war."

I did find one Jewish person in the crowd--an unemployed, middle-aged woman from California who didn't want to give her name. She insisted there were many Jews in the Tea Party, but the April 12 New York Times/CBS poll revealed that 61 percent are Protestant, 39 percent Evangelical, 22 percent Catholic and only 1 percent are Jewish. Ironically, this woman was one of the 20 percent minority in our survey who thought we should cut aid to Israel. "My parents were German Jews who barely escaped the Holocaust. If it weren't for the U.S. military, I'd be a bar of soap. But today, we have too many problems at home to be giving our money to other countries. I think we should cut ALL foreign aid."

On the question of supporting high-paid private security contractors like Blackwater (Xe) that take jobs from the military, the group was split down the middle. Half agreed that unaccountable contractors sullied our country's reputation and those jobs should be returned to the military. The other half said that as long as we don't have a draft, we need private contractors. "They are entrepreneurial, they make good use of former military with marketable skills, they keep us strong," said Jerry Walker, a small businessman from Arlington, Virginia. When I asked about the high cost to taxpayers, he said it's worth it, and that to stop the income disparities vis-Ã-vis the soldiers, the soldiers should be paid more. So much for trimming the budget!

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Medea Benjamin is the cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace


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