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.
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.
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.
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!