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The OPEC of Outrage

Rage is an important energy source. It fueled the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and is powering the ongoing protests in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. People in the Arab world have directed their anti-government anger at corruption, economic mismanagement, and human rights abuses. There's no shortage of things to be angry about. The regimes may control the oil. But the people have access to the renewable resource of rage.

Here in the United States, the tea party movement is dominating the airwaves, has overtaken the House of Representatives, and is building an ever-larger foothold in the blogosphere. By cornering the market on the production of anti-government anger, right-wing populists have created a kind of OPEC of outrage. They’ve gone ballistic over President Barack Obama, the "nanny state," and a perceived elite of pointy-headed liberals. Some of that rage backfired, as the election results in Alaska, Nevada, and Delaware demonstrated. But however laughable their grasp of American history, interpretation of the Constitution, or opinions about breast feeding, the tea partiers have undeniably changed the current political landscape in this country.

Just look at the current budget debate. "Thanks to the Tea Party, we are now told that all our problems will be solved by cutting government programs," writes E.J. Dionne in a despairing Washington Post column. "They foresee nirvana if we simply reduce our spending on Head Start, Pell grants for college access, teen pregnancy prevention, clean-water programs, K-12 education and a host of other areas."

Finally, the tea party's monopoly on mad is being challenged. Two years into the Obama era, progressives have begun to shift from a politics of hope to a politics of rage. In Wisconsin, tens of thousands of union members and social justice activists are pushing back against the governor's proposal to balance the budget on the backs of teachers, nurses, and other public sector workers. Just as the protests in Tunisia spread throughout the Middle East, the Wisconsin example has inspired similar movements in Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, and elsewhere.

It would be very easy for American politics to devolve into a clash of leftist rage versus rightist rage. But let's consider another scenario. One message can unite many of the people attracted to the populist anger of the right and left.

Here’s the story line. It's a lean time in America. Congress is debating cuts in education and housing. The states are trying to close budget shortfalls. But someone is off in the corner, gorging on pie. That someone is the Pentagon, which aims to add $8 billion to its 2011 budget and a 3 percent increase in baseline spending for 2012. The military wants $553 billion and that doesn't even count what we spend for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or our nuclear budget. More than half of discretionary spending – the money Congress controls – goes to the military.

U.S. military spending should have everyone in the country angry and up on their feet. Here’s the message to unite populists of various persuasions: "No Taxation without Demilitarization."

On April 12, we’ll have the opportunity to hold our own tea party. A few days before tax returns are due, cities around the country will participate in a Global Day of Action on Military Spending.  This will be a chance to tell the media, our elected representatives, and our fellow citizens that we’re mad as hell about this nation's budget priorities and we're not going to take it any longer. Right now it might only be four people standing in front of the City Hall in New Haven calling for war dollars to be spent at home. On April 12, they'll be joined by people all over the country – and all over the world. Check out the Tax Day organizer's packet and get involved.

Demilitarization isn't only critical for freeing up money to meet our needs at home. It's the path to a new kind of U.S. engagement with the world built on diplomacy — and not on defense dollars. Our military-industrial complex helped provide the military muscle behind a number of dictators around the world. We've supplied Egypt with more than a billion dollars a year, provided the financial support for our 5th Fleet stationed in Bahrain, and are sending Saudi Arabia the largest arms sale package in history. We have to be careful not to cut our military at home, only to boost arms exports to other countries, thereby foisting our misplaced budget priorities onto other countries.

The left and right have come together to oppose U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Can a similar alliance be forged to reduce Pentagon spending?

In a disturbing piece in Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead imagines a different kind of alliance. "Americans should rejoice that in many ways the Tea Party movement, warts and all, is a significantly more capable and reliable partner for the United States' world-order-building tasks than were the isolationists of 60 years ago." For Mead, U.S. military power is an essential ingredient of building a liberal internationalism. If tea partiers don't endorse this strategy, he fears a less palatable populist protest will take its place.

I harbor no illusions about the feasibility of convincing most tea party adherents of the need for an International Criminal Court or a global commitment to reverse climate change. But I do think that, despite Mead’s characterization of the movement, they could readily join hands with the left under a banner of "no taxation without demilitarization." To quote just one example, a number of tea party newcomers in Congress went against the lobbying of their boss John Boehner (R-OH) last week to ax the entirely unnecessary second engine for the F-35.

That's only $450 million in savings. But it’s a start. Canceling the Marine Corps version of the F-35, as the bipartisan Deficit Commission recommended, would save more than $17 billion over the next five years. Let's go further. Cost overruns and technical difficulties should prompt a full revaluation of whether the F-35 is useful for anything other than Lockheed Martin’s bottom line. (For more on the insatiable Lockheed Martin, check out William D. Hartung's latest book, Prophets of War, which Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Derek Lyndes reviews for us this week.)

The potential for an alliance of the angry is out there. People are up in arms about the budget cuts that affect their homes, their jobs, their lives. It's time to use that rage to power a national and global movement to cut military spending.

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