This article originally appeared in the Harvard International Review, Summer 2011, under the title, "Left, Right, Left, Right: Populism and Foreign Policy."
Foreign policy elites have been shaken by the unexpected rise of powerful social movements in the Arab world, coupled with the Tea Party "insurgency" in the United States. Assumptions of stable foreign and domestic equilibria seem to be in shambles. It is possible there may be a re-run of the 1950s, when domestic McCarthyism drove an aggressive military policy into quagmires first in Korea and ultimately in Vietnam. On the other hand, a progressive populism may awaken and develop into a powerful force, the beginning of which has already been observed in the popular Wisconsin reaction to Tea Party Republicans and the less-publicized immigrant rights revolt shaping the electoral politics of the southwestern United States.These rival energies are unpredictable, but one thing is clear: the center cannot hold. It is a time of realignment.
For definitional purposes, a stable equilibrium is one managed by elites--corporations, government, the media, and the military. This is in direct contrast to one that is constantly riled by rising social movements or unpredictable crises, such as the current Japanese nuclear catastrophe.
The equilibrium of the Cold War was based on nuclear-armed power alliances abroad and an anti-communist consensus at home driven by the rise of McCarthyism, a populist phenomenon similar today’s contemporary Tea Party. McCarthyism was a nationalist, xenophobic response to the perceived threats of the Soviet Union and the Chinese communist-led revolution. In US politics, the accusation of being "soft on communism" became a powerful political theme, starting on the far right and soon spreading to both parties.
My parents were from Wisconsin, part or the new middle class. My father was a strong supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy and believed that threats to the United States came from conspiracies abroad and were connected to covert allies here at home. I grew up in the Roman Catholic parish of Father Charles Coughlin in Royal Oak, Michigan, who was the first populist preacher to employ radio broadcasts to the nation. Coughlin often railed against the communist menace, and once caused my teachers to weep as they listened over school radio to the forced farewell of General Douglas MacArthur, sacked by President Harry Truman because he wanted to launch a ground war against China. Father Coughlin was also allied with Henry Ford, the populist automaker who wanted to build an American Nazi Party.
This Cold War consensus crumbled away during the pressures of the 1960s. Unlike my father's generation, ours perceived that we had plenty of problems at home, starting with the crisis of Jim Crow. The FBI and southern segregationists accused Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of being a communist agent, but the accusations flopped. Along with many others, I became a Freedom Rider on the front lines of a brutal conflict at home. From there, I would go on to become a door-knocking community organizer in Newark, New Jersey. The founding document of the 1962 Port Huron Statement, which I drafted, described the Cold War not as a necessary burden but as an obstacle to our future. The document opposed the Communist ideology and also rejected Cold War thinking because it minimized the importance of fighting racism and poverty at home. The Cold War imposed a military draft on all young men while denying us the right to vote. Cold War spending prioritized the military budget at the expense of jobs and investment in the inner cities. And, as Vietnam demonstrated, the proxy wars of the Cold War could be devastating to human life and natural environments. The great absurdity is that we lost the Vietnam War to the Vietnamese communists, yet we now enjoy diplomatic relations with them and share a strategic alliance against China.
During and after the 1960s, a new movement dedicated to domestic priorities emerged, seeming to prevail over the dominant Cold War paradigm. Richard Nixon, who rose with McCarthyism, was forced out of power in the wake of Watergate. But the political leaders that might have guided a transition to new priorities--John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King--were assassinated at the height of their transformative powers. The possibility of a new US paradigm in die 1970s, combining a renewable energy revolution, investments at home, and human rights in foreign policy briefly flickered in the Jimmy Carter era before being smothered in President Reagan's movement against all that the 1960s stood for or achieved. The Iranian revolution of 1979, which Reagan exploited to brand Carter "soft" on national security, was a harbinger of a new era in US foreign policy. Islamo-fascism and Muslim terrorism would come to replace the communist threat as the glue for a new national security state--though, ironically, the mujahedeen would be instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union.
After September 11, 2001, the Global War on Terror became the prevailing paradigm. Once again, the perceived enemy was an external one, not only a threat to Western values but to Persian Gulf oil supplies. A new alliance was assembled to fight jihadists and protect the Persian Gulf, composed of a string of monarchs and dictators uninterested in democratic values. A new vicious circle was drawn: with lip service to energy conservation, we bought oil from the Saudis who recycled the petrodollars into weapons from us. After a brief dip when the Soviet Union fell, military and intelligence spending spiraled upwards again at the expense of domestic priorities. The initial war in Afghanistan turned into the quagmire of Iraq. A new doctrine appeared in the writings of some counter-insurgency experts, the doctrine of a "Long War" lasting 50 to 80 years against radical Islam. Throughout these recent years, virtually no one in the highly rewarded security establishment anticipated the current crisis of the Global War on Terror alliance any more than thev had foreseen the prior disintegration of the Soviet Union.
But the "Humpty-Dumpties" of the Arab world began falling off their garrison walls this year, under the pressure of astonishing social movements starting in December 2010. The unstable pillars of the US counter-terrorism policy will be difficult to reassemble. Egypt may retain its peace treaty with Israel, but surely with greater support for the Palestinian quest for an official seat in the UN General Assembly this September. Nor can the United States count on Egypt as a secret holding place for renditions and torture. Yemen, home of the most serious Al Qaeda threat according to the Central Intelligence Agency, received a doubling of military aid between fiscal years 2009 and 2010, as well as a Special Forces contingent, while humanitarian assistance trickled far behind, at a net increase of only $12 million. Libya, praised for several years as a crucial bulwark in the War on Terror, is now under attack from within and without. Bahrain, port for the US naval fleet in the Persian Gulf, is under occupation by the Saudis. Jordan, center for US counter-terrorism training, is shaking. The list goes on and on. With a majority of NATO allies planning to withdraw from Afghanistan this year or next, the alliance structure of the War on Terror is a shambles. As William Butler Yeats might ask of the present crisis: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" The answer to this question concerns both US foreign policy and the Tea Party.
At least one thing seems certain: the self-constituted foreign policy establishment is likely to suffer no embarrassing career-ending resignations, despite the ruins of a visionless US foreign policy across the Muslim world. Sometimes revolutions can be seen coming from the hills-for example, China, Vietnam, and Cuba--and even in those cases the oligarchs and their foreign advisers remain blind. But when revolutions emerge from structures rotting on the inside, as in the Soviet Union and now' among the aging Arab rulers, they are invisible until they implode. The pundits and experts are akin to the helpless characters in Jose Saramaga's epic novel, Blindness, or the inept leaders in Barbara Tuchman's March to Folly--required reading for all who aspire to power.
US State Department and CIA officials at first rushed through their rolodexes in search of reliable replacements for the Humpty-Dumpties from Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere. For example, the key to Washington replacing Saleh in Yemen was to arrange a power transfer such that counter-terrorism operations in Yemen could continue operating. It did not occur to US officials that a fourfold escalation of secret military operations in one of the world's poorest countries might generate more violent hatred, not less. The War on Terror is touted as protecting Americans from another 9/11 attack. But there have been several near misses where the attackers have gone undetected by our security apparatus. The ground wars, special operations, and escalating drone attacks increase Muslim hatred of the United States, and therefore boomerang into national security threats.
But is there an alternative to the long War-on-Terror paradigm? Of course there is. Such a shift would focus overwhelmingly on a crash program of investing in energy conservation and renewable resources, rapidly reducing our trillions in military spending on Iraq, Afghanistan, and other deepening quagmires, making recognition of a Palestinian state a top diplomatic priority, as well as siding with the human rights aspirations rising from the wreckage of our past foreign policy alliances. In addition to change in the Muslim world, a sharp turn towards embracing the democratic and economic aspirations of Latin America would be a welcome change in US foreign policy. Instead, the drug-war paradigm, a variation of the war-on-terrorism paradigm, has contributed to massive strife on our southern borders with 35,000 dead in Mexico alone since 2006, when the United States intervened. Where one war is fought in the Muslim world to preserve our wasteful energy consumption, another is waged from Colombia to Mexico to lessen our intake of marijuana, cocaine, and opium.
"Foreign policy mandarins often wish the public would leave them alone so they can get on with the serious business of statecraft," Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wryly writes in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs. The purpose of Mead's article is to ask how the rise of Tea Party populism in domestic politics might interfere with the present workings of our foreign policy.
Mead notes that US policy makers like Dean Acheson and President Harry Truman intentionally played up external threats to ignite populist fears of Moscow and win support for Cold War budgets. He implies a similar political scare was generated in the wake of September 11, 2001. While the Tea Party arose in response to the election of Barack Obama and federal spending on health care, Mead explores the foreign policy implications. He sees Tea Party divisions between the Ron Paul approach which is skeptical of policing the world, and Sarah Palin who is "a full-throated supporter of the 'War on Terror' and [who], as governor of Alaska, kept an Israeli flag in her office." He predicts that the Palinites will win this argument, and that the Tea Party will generate pressure for an aggressive foreign policy, a new storm in American politics. While recognizing the threat of the Tea Party to the more cosmopolitan foreign policy establishment, Mead finally concludes that the Tea Party, "warts and all, is a significantly more capable and reliable partner for the United States' world-order-building tasks than were the isolationists of 60 years ago."
That is, Mead believes that the Tea Party consciousness is nothing like the older McCarthyist movement. Coughlin, by this view, was a more dangerous demagogue than the right-wing Christian militarists of today. According to this logic, the Tea Party is less dangerous than the John Birch Society and the white southern sovereignty commissions.
Before there is an accommodation between the foreign policy elite and the Tea Party, major problems with Mead's analysis need to be addressed. First, is the Tea Party truly more committed to due process, fair elections, and nonviolence than its predecessors in the McCarthy era? Lawyers critical of the Patriot Act and Muslim community groups would think otherwise, or not be comforted with the comparisons. Recent calls by high-level Republicans for the execution of Julian Assange and the shutdown of Wikileaks as a terrorist-supporting network are unsettling to anyone believing in due process and an open society. Palin's posters with crosshairs over the names of Congressional candidates, and her calls to "reload and take aim," are anything but peaceful. And Mead's definition of the Tea Party seems limited to its candidates and elected officials, not to its popular base, which listens to extremist media commentators and intersects with networks of armed militias.
Lest these concerns seem exaggerated, the Homeland Security Agency in 2009 issued a report predicting the rise of violent right-wing extremism due to the election of the first African-American president and a deep economic recession. According to an August 2010 Anti-Defamation League report, the resurgent Sovereign Citizen network, otherwise known as "Constitutionalists," is responsible for growing acts of violence, going back to the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing which killed 168. One of those bombers, Terry Nichols, was an ardent exponent of the "sovereign citizen" doctrine, which holds that the federal government is illegitimate. The ravings of Jared Loughner, who killed six people and wounded 14 in January 2011, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, dovetails neatly with the Internet ideology of the "sovereign citizens." The sheriff of Arizona's Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, warned against "people who make a living off right-wing vitriol, before just such a barrage of talk-host vitriol silenced him.
Giffords' opponent, Jesse Kelly, who received 47 percent of the vote, campaigned on a platform of dispatching ten thousand American troops to the Mexican border in "an active enforcement mode." His campaign flyers called for getting "on target" to defeat Giffords by shooting a fully automatic M16 at a Kelly fund-raiser.
So it is not at all clear that the Tea Party phenomenon harbors less potential for violent extremism than the McCarthyism of the 1950s. To be fair, individual Tea Party members are generally law-abiding in their passionate opposition to taxes, terrorists, and undocumented workers. But the proper comparison with the past might be to the John Birch Society and decentralized networks of vengeful anti-communist Cubans who were loosed in the United States while many US politicians looked away during past decades.
The second problem with Mead's analysis is his blind underestimation of progressive populism because of his focus on the Tea Party, a deeply rooted viewpoint on his part. For example, he writes that Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam War because he believed, probably correctly, that right-wing populist fury at a communist victory in Vietnam would undermine his domestic goals. That might have been Johnson's inside the Beltway thinking, but it was completely wrong, and the mistake is compounded by Mead's analysis. Johnson was defeated by an anti-Vietnam resistance that grew from the campuses to the streets, to the ranks of the combat troops, to the political campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. It was progressive populism that Johnson and many Democrats ignored until it was too late.
While the Tea Party deserves the attention it has received, it is striking that another wave of progressive populism is growing at accelerating speed. In fact, there are two strands that are far too significant to ignore. First, there is the impact of immigration policy on spurring a new civil rights and labor movement and Latino victories in the 2008-10 elections. On March 25, 2006, at least one million Latinos, mostly immigrants, marched in Los Angeles, the largest outpouring of its kind in history. This was classic progressive populism, with the spontaneous energy flowing far beyond the capacity of what existing organizations could create.
Soon the insurgency was felt at the polls, just as the Tea Party revolt impacted the subsequent Republican primaries. Latino voters, who gave nearly 70 percent of their votes to Obama in 2008, were decisive in such states as California, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. The tide will continue rolling towards Democrats in 2012. But the "Latino factor" is never compared to the Tea Party, even as the Tea Party helps trigger the increased Latino turnout.
The second strand to consider is the Wisconsin progressive revolt of 2011. Mead does not note the progressive populist uprising starting in Wisconsin in response to the Tea Party-supported governor's repeal of collective bargaining rights. The movement started with the rank-and-file of the unions and Democratic Party in a state with a dormant Progressive tradition. The state capitol was occupied for 28 days during a freezing winter, with street demonstrations reaching in excess of 100,000. Within weeks, the populist movement was being felt at the polls, as Milwaukee's county executive was dumped and a little-known assistant attorney general apparently defeated a Republican incumbent chief justice. Polls in key states across the Midwest--and the nation--suddenly swung in favor of collective bargaining instead of the Tea Party agenda. It was evidence that populism can arise in the form of Robert LaFollette as well as Joseph McCarthy.
Mead also ignores the pattern of progressive populism that underlaid the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. There was unprecedented turnout and enthusiasm among the young, the black, and the brown. Obama could not have prevailed in Iowa without the peace vote. He won nine racially-polarized "purple" states on the strength of bloc voting by African Americans and Latinos. In spite of losing the white vote in Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, Obama won those states on the basis of the black-brown vote.
What are we to make of this rise in progressive movements? First, that the Tea Party, while significant, may be overrated when compared to the populist trends in America around social justice, labor rights, environmentalism and peace. Instead of judging only the effect of the Tea Party on the foreign policy establishment, it is important to evaluate the interaction between the Tea Party's growth and rising resistance to its role. Second, the mainstream perception has consistently enlarged importance of the Tea Party while underestimating movements for immigrant rights, labor protections, and against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Does anyone remember that there were over ten demonstrations of 100,000 or more Americans against the Iraq War, that the Congressional majority was changed in 2006 because of the Iraq factor, or that Barack Obama was the first president elected with a pledge to withdraw from an ongoing war? Were these not the outcomes of populism on the left?
Finally, it may be most accurate to say that the Tea Party is a reaction to a decline from power and privilege of constituencies who no longer constitute an American majority. This is not to deny the threatening climate that accompanies the lea Party's rise, nor a call to ignore the Tea Party's legitimate grievances about tax policy, government bureaucracy, and the menacing power of Wall Street.
But following the Tea Party into the Long War while stripping social investments at home would be the greatest disaster since President Johnson escalated Vietnam to fend off BarryGold water and embarked on his irrational “guns and butter” program. Instead, the Tea Party foreign-policy instinct which some elites fear the most--the "isolationism" of a Ron Paul who argues that the Long War is an unconstitutional burden on America's debt--may be the very basis of a "new priorities" platform that the country sorely needs.