Scott McConnell: “How the Neocons Are Co-opting the Tea Party”

Founding editor of The American Conservative, Scott McConnell, has just published an in-depth analysis of the origins of the Tea Party’s foreign policy and how the Tea Party may influence foreign policy in the new Congress.

McConnell, in an article for Right Web, traces the Tea Party’s foreign policy pronouncements back to Sarah Palin and her close relationship with neoconservative heavyweight Bill Kristol. Kristol, as described by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, “discovered” Palin the summer before John McCain put her on the Republican national ticket.

McConnell writes:

McCain enlisted influential neoconservative Randy Scheunemann as a policy advisor, and in turn Scheunemann brought on Steve Biegun as her chief foreign policy staffer. Palin’s previous foreign policy pronouncements had been vague and scattered, but she became an eager student. She made hawkish noises during the campaign: while she spoke more loosely than expected about the possibility of war with Russia, she forthrightly supported an Israeli strike on Iran. Despite efforts by paleoconservatives to reach out to her and provide some counterinfluence, she stayed on message—which would have considerable significance as she became a political star in her own right.

Palin has continued to hit neoconservative talking points even while the Tea Party movement has, at times, called for cuts in government spending and rejected the Bush administration’s military adventurism.

McConnell observes:

She reliably echoes neoconservative talking points about war with Iran. When addressing the Tea Party Convention in Nashville last February, she hit neocon talking points by citing Ronald Reagan, “peace through strength,” and “tough action” against Iran.


Wearing an Israeli flag pin, she charged that President Obama was causing “Israel, our critical ally” to question our support by reaching out to hostile regimes.

But Palin’s apparent willingness to uphold Bush’s “freedom agenda” of spreading democracy has not always been received with enthusiasm by Tea Party audiences who embrace small-government.

McConnell writes:

Even David Frum, the prominent neoconservative writer and Iraq war enthusiast who has expressed deep skepticism regarding Palin and the Tea Party, praised the foreign policy segments of her speech, claiming that she sounded as “somebody who knew something of what he or she was talking about.” Live blogging her talk, Frum tellingly observed that Tea Partiers sat on their hands during these segments: “Interesting—no applause for sanctions on Iran. No applause for Palin’s speculation that democracies keep the peace.”

While Tea Party members are, understandably, skeptical of the benefits of “nation building,” neoconservatives such as Frank Gaffney have capitalized on the movement’s nativist leanings by hyping the threat of “creeping Shariah.” Islamophobic fear mongering has proven itself a more effective tool for bringing, otherwise isolationist, Tea Partiers behind the neoconservative’s foreign policy.

And besides, a militarist foreign policy is far less expensive—dare I say “more fiscally responsible”?—if the nation building is cut from the budget.

McConnell writes:

Asked at a recent Washington forum whether the new Congress would support or oppose an attack on Iran, Colin Dueck, author of Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War ll, quipped that if you do air strikes you don’t have to do nation building. In this sense, the budget constraints which Tea Party candidates worry about may be much less a barrier to near term neoconservative foreign policy ambitions than might be imagined.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.