With Leaders Like This, Libertarians Can't Trust the Tea Party

Amy Kremer says Americans have no choice but to trust the president in matters of foreign policy. This is what she thinks limited government is?
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Gage Skidmore

Wouldn't it be nice if libertarians could enthusiastically embrace the Tea Party, a protest movement that purports to be about small government and strict adherence to the Constitution? The temptation is understandable. For all the Herman Cain-style hucksters it has foolishly elevated, the Tea Party wave managed to facilitate an upset Senate victory for Rand Paul, who has done more than any other Republican to question the civil-liberties transgressions of the Obama Administration, and whose filibuster relied on support from Tea Party-affiliated colleagues like Marco Rubio, not supposed mavericks centrists like John McCain.  

Has the protest movement done more harm or good? Given that all of its worst pathologies seem to be shared by the Republican establishment anyway, I am inclined to be glad that it exists. May it mature and grow.

But for now, the Tea Party movement cannot be trusted in the realm of foreign affairs, because on executive power, too many of its leaders are still closer to Dick Cheney and John Yoo than James Madison.

Take Amy Kremer, who helped found the Atlanta Tea Party and subsequently rose to leadership positions in the Tea Party Express. Understand that this is someone who has been steeped in Tea Party ideas and rhetoric for years now, coordinating national events, traveling cross-country on a Tea Party bus tour, and giving national media interviews. For that reason, there's no excuse for the interview that she just gave CNN. It concerns the faulty intelligence Team Bush cited prior to the Iraq invasion, and what lessons to take from that unexpectedly long war:

CNN ANCHOR: The next time an American president wants to declare war on some country or wants to carry out a war, will the American people believe him or her?

AMY KREMER: I think that all of our leaders acted with the information they had available to them at that time. And you know, it wasn't that President Bush just went in and did this on his own. Congress had to vote to go in as well. He had support. Like I said, we can never have enough intelligence. So the American people I don't think have any alternative to believe our president. That's why he's been elected. And I certainly hope we don't ever go down this road ever again, because you never want to lose any lives, and there's always unintended consequences.

CNN ANCHOR: I think clearly, especially from my Facebook comments, Americans have no appetite for war, or very little appetite for war, unless the country comes under direct attack.

AMY KREMER: I have to agree with you that we didn't want this. No one wanted this. But we had been attacked on September 11. And going into Iraq was not a direct result, but it led to Iraq. And none of us want that. We have to trust our leaders, and I think that's really the only alternative that we have. But also, when we go in and do something we need to have an exit strategy, a plan that we can execute, and have as much intelligence as we can.

This is madness.

What a Tea Party leader ought to say, if that movement really stands for limited government and constitutional principles, is that the American people must never just believe the president, especially with a decision so consequential as whether to go to war -- the president should be checked by legislators who understand the Founding-era insight about why the executive branch must not be vested with the power to declare war; POTUS should be questioned by an adversarial press that has learned from long experience that presidents lie in the runnup to wars; and he or she should be questioned by citizens whose civic duty includes skeptically evaluating claims made by government officials and speaking out when they fail the test of credibility.

Put simply, we do not have to trust our presidents. A Tea Party leader ought to be fighting for executive-branch transparency so the legislature can better fulfill its oversight function and the need for "trust" is diminished. The Tea Party ought to stand for healthy skepticism of all official claims, knowing the incentive that politicians have to lie. Kremer's statement would be naive and discrediting in any circumstance. That she made it in the context of the Iraq War, as clear cut an example as any of why the executive branch cannot be trusted as an honest broker of information, is telling. So is her apparent belief that there isn't even any available alternative to trusting the president. How is that the message the Tea Party Express wants to spread on national TV? Paul is trying his hardest to change these attitudes and give Tea Partiers a vocabulary for participating in what Ron Wyden calls the checks-and-balances caucus. He has his work cut out for him.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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