George Washington, Isolationist

Contrast the advice he offered in his farewell address with Mitt Romney's foreign affairs promises or President Obama's policies

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"The Republican Party has gotten so extreme," its critics often claim, "that were Ronald Reagan running for president today, he couldn't get past the primaries." Are they right? Your guess is as good as mine. But I'll tell you who definitely couldn't win over the GOP establishment: George Washington. Have you read that guy's take on foreign policy? Talk about a pre-9/11 mindset.

I thought of Washington and his Farewell Address when I read Mitt Romney's recent speech on foreign policy. "Cultivate peace and harmony with all," Washington counseled. "Permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded... The nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave." Romney has different priorities. "I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel's existence as a Jewish state. I will count as dear our Special Relationship with the United Kingdom," he promised. "I will launch a campaign to advance economic opportunity in Latin America, and contrast the benefits of democracy, free trade, and free enterprise against the material and moral bankruptcy of the Venezuelan and Cuban model."

Washington counseled avoiding "overgrown military establishments, which under any form of government are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty." Says Romney, "I will reverse President Obama's massive defense cuts.  Time and again, we have seen that attempts to balance the budget by weakening our military only lead to a far higher price... I will reverse the hollowing of our Navy and announce an initiative to increase the shipbuilding rate from 9 per year to 15.  I will begin reversing Obama-era cuts to national missile defense and prioritize the full deployment of a multilayered national ballistic missile defense system. " (Note: Obama has not presided over massive defense cuts.)

According to Washington, "Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury...The nation, prompted by ill will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy." But according to Romney, "In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran's suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world... I will enhance our deterrent against the Iranian regime by ordering the regular presence of aircraft carrier task forces, one in the Eastern Mediterranean and one in the Persian Gulf region."

Washington believed that with regard to foreign nations, it's best to trade freely and "have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop." Says Romney, "the United States will exercise leadership in multilateral organizations and alliances. American leadership lends credibility and breeds faith in the ultimate success of any action."

Washington thought that "our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. Why," he asked, "forgo the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?" Says Romney, "We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert America's time has passed. That is utter nonsense. An eloquently justified surrender of world leadership is still surrender. I will not surrender America's role in the world."   

I don't mean to pick on Romney. Sure, his vision of U.S. foreign policy is directly at odds with America's most beloved president, one of its best generals, and the man to whom the Founding generation turned for prudent leadership. But no more so than Rick Perry or Barack Obama. For almost all establishment politicians, veneration of the Founders doesn't extend to foreign policy. Perhaps they're right. The mere fact that a great man said these things in a 1796 statement doesn't mean they ought to guide national security policy more than two centuries later.

Reading his words, however, I suspect a lot of Americans would conclude that Washington gets a lot more right than wrong, even regarding today's world. I'd settle for mere recognition that a man regarded by left and right to be a fantastic president, one perfectly willing to take up arms for the sake of liberty, held positions that would today be labeled anti-Israel unpatriotic isolationism. It's useful perspective for anyone who reads the foreign policy speeches of the GOP candidates, observes the behavior of Obama, and suspects that today's Washington D.C. foreign affairs consensus is far inferior to the parting advice of the guy for whom we named the city.

Image credit: Reuters

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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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