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Down the rabbit hole of Tea Party foreign policy

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Down the rabbit hole of Tea Party foreign policy

Leaders advocate divergent approaches, from nonintervention to hawkish aggression


AUSTIN, Texas — It is no trick for a Europe-based reporter to define Tea Party foreign policy, after prowling both coasts and parts in between. There is none.

The worldview of the conservative grassroots movement evokes that tea party Alice found down a rabbit hole, with a discombobulated Mad Hatter and a mercurial queen shouting, "Off with their heads."

Congressman Ron Paul, a representative here in hat-happy Texas, defined one approach in Foreign Policy magazine. He said the party could prosper by ending war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He wrote: "A return to the traditional U.S. foreign policy of active private engagement but government noninterventionism is the only alternative that can restore our moral and fiscal health."

That fits with the basic Tea Party tenet: Government should butt out of Americans' lives and give their wallets a break. But, beyond U.S. borders, that gets complicated.

Sarah Palin champions George W. Bush's aggressive approach and opposes military budget cuts. She demands that obstreperous foreigners should be shown what's what.

Other leaders stick with simple rhetoric to fire up a rank and file with little patience for complexity.

In a piece headlined, "Tea Party Foreign Policy a Bit Cloudy," the New York Times asked FreedomWorks founder Dick Armey if the party had a position on global affairs. He replied, "I don't think so."

Deep in the heart of Texas, where tea now ranks up there with Lone Star beer, cloudy is a pale understatement.

Over lunch at the University of Texas, three journalism professors with broad foreign experience snorted in unison when asked how the Tea Party saw the wider world.

As in most of America this election season, few Texans seem to look beyond national borders — if that far.

After a rousing rendition of "Bakersfield" at the Broken Spoke, one musician joked: "State law requires that if we play a song about California, we have to follow with two songs about Texas." Next up was "Abilene."

But across America and beyond, many worry that Americans will fiddle while the world burns.

Beyond conflicts from Palestine to Pakistan, tectonic economic shifts, and all the rest, worsening climate chaos is fast losing priority. For the Tea Party, denial approaches fundamentalist zeal.

"It's a flat-out lie," an electrician and party activist named Norman Dennison told the New York Times. "I read my Bible. He made this earth for us to utilize." As a more modern source, he cited Rush Limbaugh.

Dennison spoke at an Indiana candidate forum after an incumbent Democratic congressman was roundly booed for citing scientific evidence.

For Republicans, the message is clear. With a single exception, all of the party's senatorial candidates support Dick Cheney's decade-old stance: Humans are not to blame.

Such Gospel-like beliefs put the Tea Party at odds with "the mainstream press;" that is, news outlets the nation relies upon for pre-election briefings.

At a Kansas rally, reporters were warned not to mention global warming, and certainly not Al Gore. Tea Party discourse can get hostile when journalists act like journalists.

Immigration is another flash point. At the extreme, Tea Party orators hark back to the 19th-century Know-Nothings, who wanted to seal off U.S. borders.

Washington-based foreign correspondents note with irony that Tea Party politicians' tactics sometimes run counter to the American values they espouse.

Edward Luce of London's Financial Times, for one, now reports from the United States after covering India, the world's largest democracy with vast communal divides.

In one recent dispatch, he focused on an encounter in Alaska between journalist Tony Hopfinger and Joe Miller, the Tea Party-backed senatorial candidate.

When Hopfinger approached to ask questions, Miller's private security guards handcuffed him.

Luce also wrote that Tea Party candidates cover a lack of world knowledge by shunning all but the friendliest of interviewers.

Yet even in a softball interview with Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin could not name one of the American Founding Fathers she repeatedly invoked.

In any case, simple passing knowledge is little comfort to non-Americans who expect the world's lone superpower to navigate securely through perilous waters.

Luce quoted Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's reply when Fox News asked about what she called her "plan for Pakistan."

Calling Pakistan a Middle Eastern country, she praised Pervez Musharraf, the last military dictator, as exemplary of the democracy America should encourage.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Mort Rosenblum is founding editor of the quarterly, Dispatches. From 1967 to 2004, Rosenblum was Associated Press bureau chief and special correspondent in Africa, Southeast Asia, Argentina and France, reporting from 200 countries. From 1979-1981, he was editor of the International Herald Tribune. Based in Paris and Provence, he returns each winter to the University of Arizona to teach global reporting. Among his 12 books are “Escaping Plato’s Cave: How America’s Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival,” “Who Stole the News?,” “Coups and Earthquakes,” “Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light” and the best-selling “Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit.” He can be reached through

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