Could Tea Party Reshape the Afghanistan Debate?

With budget the top priority, some are calling for re-examination of the war.

ByABC News
March 17, 2011, 5:18 PM

March 18, 2011— -- Tea Party activists have remained quiet on the foreign policy front, but with budget cuts under the limelight, the war in Afghanistan could fracture Republicans at a time they're already struggling to come to a consensus on what the budget cuts should entail.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is the latest in the short line of Republicans to suggest that Congress should consider defense budget cuts and rethink the number of troops it has committed in Afghanistan.

"We can save money on defense and if we Republicans don't propose saving money on defense, we'll have no credibility on anything else," Barbour, a potential presidential contender, said on Tuesday, adding that "we need to look at" reducing the number of soldiers in Afghanistan.

While Barbour may be in the minority in the GOP, his comments reflect a perspective increasingly being pushed by deficit hawks. They also come at a time when Republicans are facing increasing pressure from Tea Party and other conservative groups to take bolder steps in addressing the budget.

With candidates and lawmakers up for re-election next year already gearing up for a tough fight, the Tea Party's push on cost-cutting and returning to Constitutional principles could reshape the debate and Republican support of the war in Afghanistan.

"The Constitution stipulates the common defense of the United States, not a common defense of everybody else, and that's different from what Washington's attitude is," said Christopher A. Preble, author and director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. "There's something deeply unconservative about nation-building and that's what we're doing in Afghanistan, or at least that's what we appear to be doing. Barbour pretty much picked up on this."

Tea Party members have, thus far, deliberately steered clear of foreign policy issues and defense spending, but when it comes to the budget, they say everything should be on the line.

"We don't address foreign policy at all," said Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, one of the country's leading national Tea Party groups. "But when I say every program needs to be on the table, I mean that every program needs to be on the table. Sure, there's duplicate programs, waste and fraud and abuse in every single department. It all needs to be on the table, and it all needs to be looked at."

Defense Department spending on Afghanistan on average grew from $3.5 billion to $5.7 billion in fiscal year 2010, a 63 percent jump. Billions more are being spent on civilian and infrastructure development.

Opposition to the war in Afghanistan is at a record high. Just 31 percent now say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, a new low, 64 percent call it not worth fighting, and 49 percent feel that way "strongly," according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday.

A national survey of conservatives performed for the Afghanistan Study Group in January, 2010, found that 67 percent of Tea Party supporters were worried the costs would make it more difficult for the United States to reduce its deficit, and 64 percent of them supported reducing U.S. troop levels. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted a year later found similar results, with 61 percent of Republicans supporting a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan.