Tea Party Digs In As U.S. Global Power Declines

By John Trinkl
October, 2013

Washington's Wars and Occupations:
Month in Review #102/October 31,

John Trinkl gauges the impact of the government shutdown and the blowback against NSA spying on Washington's international clout, while highlighting the dangers that the racist Tea Party agenda holds for progressives and the 99%.

The U.S. ship of state took some serious blows during the month of October.

Ironically the first hit came from some of the most loudmouth boosters of U.S. power when the Tea Party Republicans shut down the government. The shutdown lasted 16 days and the U.S. came dangerously close to defaulting on the national debt. The Tea Party stunt not only damaged the U.S. economy but rippled out to weaken Washington's international economic and political standing.

A second hit was the blowback from the continuing revelations about surveillance of foreign governments, including some of the U.S.’s closest allies. The firestorm of anger at Washington reinforced a trend that has been underway for some time: "other nations are becoming more important, asserting their right to move without U.S. action, and moving away from American direction" as Gordon Adams put it in Foreign Policy Journal.

The decline of U.S. global power creates openings for peace advocates to make a difference on a number of urgent issues: the delicate negotiations with Iran; the U.S. role in post-2014 Afghanistan; the continuing humanitarian and political crisis in Syria; Washington's drone killings. Domestic politics, meanwhile, remain deeply polarized, with the Tea Party holding fast to its reactionary and racist agenda and the elites in both parties committed to social austerity.


“Republicans Are No Longer the Party of Business,” read the headline of a story in Bloomberg Businessweek days after the shutdown began. The U.S, Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Congress saying “It is not in the best interest of the employers, employees or the American people to risk a government showdown that will be economically disruptive and create even more uncertainties for the U.S. economy.”

Once the shutdown started, the Chamber and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) both wrote Congress urging action on the debt ceiling. “Our nation has never defaulted in the past, and failing to raise the debt limit in a timely fashion will seriously disrupt our economy and have a ripple effect throughout the world,” wrote the president of NAM. But Tea Party legislators turned a deaf ear.

In response to such recklessness and its damage to the GOP "brand," parts of Washington’s business lobby are considering supporting primary campaigns in 2014 against Tea Party oriented GOP lawmakers who engineered the shutdown.

But the business groups' anger is mainly at Tea Party legislative tactics, not their policy agenda. The corporate wing of the Republican Party shares the Tea Party commitment to cutting funding for social programs, lowering taxes on the rich, and an overall austerity agenda. And the deal that ended the shutdown shows how much the corporate wing of the Democrats have embraced the same framework, only wanting to take a bit less from the poor and vulnerable. The post-shutdown framework for budget discussions in D.C is not “how do we create jobs and protect those who are hurting?" but “how do we cut the federal deficit and balance the budget?” 


Senator Ted Cruz and his Tea Party cohorts don't seem fazed by opposition from what's left of the "moderate" Republican establishment. They believe they have the support of a significant base that sees itself as defending the "real America" against a tide of "others" who threaten the pillars of white Christian civilization. In this mind-set, Tea Party zealots don't believe they are obligated to follow any law or election result they don’t like.

Their historical antecedent is the nullification movement stretching back to the Confederacy: the concept that a state could nullify a federal law by declaring it null and void. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Tea Party activists are more affluent than the average American, and the dominant members are what Michael Lind calls “white Southern local notables.Lind writes, “The political strategy of the Newest Right, then, is simply a new strategy for the very old, chiefly-Southern Jefferson-Jackson right. It is a perfectly rational strategy, given its goal: maximizing the political power and wealth of white local notables who find themselves living in states, and eventually a nation, with present or potential nonwhite majorities.”


The shutdown cost the U.S $24 billion according to Standard and Poor, with the effects hitting poor people and people of color the hardest. An estimated 250,000 jobs were lost. The shutdown led to the biggest plunge in consumer confidence since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

While these economic costs were great, the political costs internationally were probably even greater. “Washington is looking more like the Italian political system, with its permanent crises,” noted Alain Frachon, former Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Global finance ministers were worried that the threat of a U.S. default “would mean massive disruption the world over, and we would be at risk of tipping yet again into a recession,” Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The Economist, a bellwether for international business opinion, ran a cover story, “No Way to Run A Country” saying, “The shutdown is a symptom of a deeper problem: the federal law making process is so polarized that it has become paralyzed.”

The shutdown prevented President Obama from attending the summit in Indonesia of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a key component of the administration’s “pivot toward Asia.” Obama's absence left China as the dominant leader at the gathering, which was devoted to greater regional economic integration.

In reaction to the near default on the U.S. debt, the official Chinese government news agency, Xinhua, called for the replacement of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency: “it is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.” Xinhua added, “The world is still crawling its way out of an economic disaster thanks to the voracious Wall Street elites” and called for a “new world order” in which “all nations, big or small, poor or rich, can have their key interests respected and protected on an equal footing.”  Barely reported in the U.S. press, the Chinese call resonated with elites and non-elites alike across the globe.


The disclosures of broad National Security Agency spying on global leaders as documents released by Edward Snowden continue to be published have further weakened U.S. "soft power." Mexico, France, Germany, Brazil, Spain and other countries expressed outrage in having their leaders spied upon. The U.S. ambassadors in Germany, France and Spain were summoned to explain U.S. spying in their countries. The European Union sent a delegation to Washington to investigate the disclosures of U.S. spying on European leaders.

Washington's growing weakness was implicitly acknowledged in Obama's speech to the U.N. in September. Presenting U.S. priorities in the Middle East, the President stressed negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians and mitigating the conflict in Syria. He declared that the U.S. could rarely achieve its objectives through unilateral American action, particularly military action. The speech scaled back much of the expansive American role Obama articulated in the same venue two years ago, not to mention the swaggering unilateralism offered by his predecessor in the White House.


How Washington will act given its weaker position will be tested in several knotty conflicts over the coming weeks and months.

Negotiations between Washington, the P-5 and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program are entering a critical stage. Iran is taking a new and more flexible posture. Elements within the Obama administration and most of Europe appear willing to make the concessions necessary to strike a deal - acceptance of Iran's right to enrich for non-weapon purposes; ease and then remove sanctions. But U.S. hawks, the Israeli establishment and the Saudi Arabian monarchy are going all out to prevent a lowering of tensions.

Israel's efforts to drag the U.S. away from diplomacy and into another Middle East war have long been an open secret. Now Saudi Arabia is throwing its weight publicly on the hawk side as well. Piqued at U.S. failure to strongly support the rebel forces in Syria and hostile to Iran, the Saudis refused a seat on the U.N. Security Council, an unprecedented action. Analyst Juan Cole reports that the Saudi royal family is looking for a different model of politics in the world and has been considering a pivot to China.

(Egypt is another longtime U.S. ally/client displaying new independence from Washington. Cairo sent a delegation to Moscow shortly after the U.S. cut $300 million out of its aid package to Cairo.)

Current negotiations between the U.S. and Afghan governments over what role the U.S. will play after the (alleged) end of U.S. combat operations in 2014 will be another test of for a weakened U.S. Even though the Karzai government is all but completely dependent on Western money and military backing it is refusing to follow Washington's program. It is not clear if the U.S. can be forced out to the degree Washington had to quit Iraq. But already senior NATO officials have announced they are planning a smaller post-2014 mission with fewer combat trainers.

Drone warfare is also facing a new level of criticism. Though shying away from large-scale deployment of troops, the Obama administration has continued drone killings in Pakistan and recently launched Special Forces commando raids in Libya and Somalia. Ominously, the New York Times reported a new military unit is being trained in Kansas to be deployed in Africa counterinsurgency work – one that would be a model for future military deployments around the world.

Pushing back, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have just issued scathing reports on U.S. use of drones, including allegations that these could be considered war crimes. Their reports received surprisingly extensive and sympathetic coverage in the mainstream press. Antiwar groups are planning a major Drone Summit next month in Washington, DC to step up pressure to halt drone warfare, period.


Analyst Dilip Hiro argues that the world may be at a turning point:

"In the future, the indecent haste with which Barack Obama sought cover under the umbrella unfurled by his Russian counterpart, Vladimr Putin, in the Syrian chemical weapons crisis will be viewed as a watershed moment when it comes to America’s waning power in [the greater Middle East].…Ever fewer countries, allies, or enemies, are paying attention, much less kowtowing, to the once-formidable power of the world’s last superpower. The list of defiant figures—from Egyptian generals to Saudi princes, Iraqi Shiite leaders to Israeli politicians—is lengthening.”

Twenty years ago Immanuel Wallerstein published a book The Decline of American Power. This seemed to be an incredible proposition to offer at the moment George W. Bush was engaged in a massive war buildup. But while the U.S is still the world's strongest single power, that power worldwide is being steadily reduced. Wallerstein noted “We have entered a chaotic world…..The U.S. government is adrift in a situation that it is trying to manage all over the place and that it will be incapable of managing.”

But heightened global resistance to U.S. dictates is not the only trend accompanying U.S. decline. Another is the development right here of a political force that wants to go back decades and more to a time when their idea of "the real America" (white, Christian, exceptional, and chosen by God to be "Number One") could rule the roost. That force is increasingly aggressive (and well-financed) in their drive to gut the labor movement, deny people of color basic rights, undercut women's rights, give full sway to the “free market” and throw U.S. weight around globally.

Via their over-reach in the government shutdown, the Tea Party has alienated a majority of the country. That majority is nowhere near organized into a united progressive alternative. But it is open to hearing a progressive message – especially, as opposition to a military strike in Syria showed, on issues of war vs. peace. The peace movement is organizationally weak right now. But given this new public mood, aggressive efforts to get our anti-war, anti-militarist perspective out as broadly as possible can bear fruit and yield more victories.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

John Trinkl has been with War Times since its early days when it was a print publication, helping mainly with distribution. He is involved in progressive political action in San Francisco and at a community school in the Mission. He also works with environmental and land use groups in California's Sierra mountains. Before coming to the Bay Area he was a writer and editor for the Guardian Newsweekly in New York City.

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