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Tea Partiers show mixed views on foreign policy

Rebel fighters load their vehicle-mounted weapon on the outskirts of Zlitan, near Misrata's western frontline
Rebel fighters load their vehicle-mounted weapon on the outskirts of Zlitan, near Misrata's western frontline

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tea Party movement-backed lawmakers have marched in lockstep toward the goal of shrinking the government but that unity dissolves when it comes to America's role in the world.

Republicans who were elected to Congress with support of the grassroots movement have bucked Republican orthodoxy by supporting some defense spending cuts, and they have been at the forefront of criticism of the U.S. Libya intervention.

But they appear more divided on how quickly to pull out from Afghanistan, with some favoring a quicker drawdown than President Barack Obama has proposed and others, a slower one.

"It's really a little bit of a trap to suggest that there is somehow a foreign policy view of the Tea Party," said Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

The movement has no clear-cut ideology beyond keeping government small and cutting spending so it is not clear how strong a force on national security issues the Tea Party will be. Movement support helped strip $450 million from funds for an alternate engine for the F-35 fighter aircraft.

Tea Party-backed lawmakers have led criticism of the Libya intervention. On Thursday, a House proposal to defund U.S. military operations in Libya came close to passage with considerable Tea Party backing; about two-thirds of the 59-member House Tea Party caucus voted for it.

The measure was sponsored by Republican Justin Amash, who was elected last year with Tea Party support, and liberal Democrat Dennis Kucinich. It failed on a vote of 199-229.

Foreign policy has simply not been the Tea Party's chief concern. U.S. Representative Ron Paul, the Republican presidential contender who has been called the "intellectual godfather" of the movement, is anti-war and non-interventionist.

PAUL VERSUS BACHMANN

Paul's son, Tea Party adherent and freshman Republican Senator Rand Paul, also teamed up with Democrats in a New York Times opinion piece calling for removing all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.

This would make America "more secure and stronger economically," Paul argued, along with Senators Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall. It was time to act "aggressively to bring our troops and tax dollars home."

Pletka said it is wrong to assume that the hands-off world view of the Pauls were the "heart and soul" of the Tea Party.

"I don't think that everybody who is fiscally responsible is also interested in leading America's retreat from the world," Pletka said.

The leaders of the Tea Party caucuses in the House and Senate, Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint, are taking a more hawkish, traditionally Republican approach to the Afghan war.

DeMint told CNN recently the United States should "finish the job" in Afghanistan and not "withdraw too quickly."

When Democrat Obama last month announced the start of the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, Bachmann accused the president of putting politics ahead of national security.

"We must never forget that 9/11 was hatched in the caves and the mountains of Afghanistan. The Taliban has a presence there. Al Qaeda has a presence there. We must defeat them in their backyard," she told National Public Radio.

Critics of the Afghan war seem to be "outliers" among Tea Party-backed lawmakers as well as in Congress at large, agreed Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, a war critic who says he is "very much Tea Party-oriented."

But Chaffetz believes voter attitudes on Afghanistan are shifting his way. He told Reuters he gets a positive response in Utah whenever he discusses the need to leave Afghanistan.

"It's a guaranteed applause line. I can stand up in front of any audience, make the case, and get huge applause," Chaffetz said. "On Libya, it's even stronger. Nobody knows why we are there."

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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