This post is a week late in coming, since I had planned on writing it last Friday until the O&Z equivalent of the moon landing happened when Israel and Turkey patched things up and relegated today’s thoughts to the sidelines. On President Obama’s arrival in Israel last week, Andrew Sullivan wrote a post titled Barack Obama vs. George Washington in which he juxtaposed Washington’s famous “passionate attachment” farewell speech in which he warned about making entangling alliances with Obama’s speech at Ben Gurion airport after landing in Israel. The relevant Washington passages that Andrew quoted are as follows:

The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest…

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite nation,) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

Andrew then quoted Obama, who said, “So as I begin this visit, let me say as clearly as I can –the United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel. It makes us both stronger. It makes us both more prosperous. And it makes the world a better place. That’s why the United States was the very first nation to recognize the State of Israel 65 years ago. That’s why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today. And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach.”

Andrew’s commentary on this was that Washington would have regarded Obama’s statements as “deeply corrosive of foreign policy and domestic governance” and that this is the primary reason we may be headed to war again in the Middle East. In other words, the relationship with Israel is harmful because the U.S. should be avoiding eternal alliances or unbreakable relationships per Washington’s exhortation, and his words are just as relevant today as they were when he delivered them in 1796.

To my mind, there are two big problems with this line of reasoning. First, the notion that anything uttered about foreign affairs in 1796, when both the world and the U.S. position in it have changed so much, is to be taken as absolute gospel to be followed in 2013 is preposterous. The U.S. has gone from being a relative backwater to being the world’s preeminent hegemonic power, communications and transportation technology have revolutionized the way states interact, the dangers that states face have been transformed in ways that would have been unrecognizable in the 18th century – much as the dangers states will face 100 years from now are probably not being accurately predicted today – and diplomacy looks nothing like it did in Washington’s day. That is not to say that Washington’s warning is useless by any means, but not updating it or putting it into context based on the 21st century world seems foolhardy.

Furthermore, Andrew himself recognizes this fact when it comes to nearly every other aspect of politics, culture, social transformation, legal theory, and philosophy. To begin with, he describes himself as a Burkean conservative, a philosophy which expressly takes into account the fact that the world is constantly changing and that principles are therefore not immutable but need to be updated. In Andrew’s own words:

Burke’s fundamental point is that everything in society is contingent and that change must always begin with what came before and is most successful when it works inferentially from that tradition rather than being imposed from outside according to abstract theories or texts. Tradition is also a very expansive term. An American can reach back deeply into the American past and resurrect an ancient tradition and make it fresh again – thus appearing to be quite radical, while still fitting into the definition of a Burkean conservative. It is always up to the statesman at any period of time to make a prudential judgment about what change is good and what isn’t.

Hence, to a liberal who wants a clear and timeless theory about what makes something just or unjust, right or wrong, Burke looks unprincipled.

This does not mean that a Burkean conservative cannot look to Washington’s statement and determine that it is still relevant, but Andrew has not gone through that process in his writing. Instead, he takes it as an article of faith that Washington’s words are timeless and that any policy that contradicts those words must be inherently bad. What is so striking about this is that in his advocacy for marriage equality, Andrew appeals directly to Burkean conservatism – and rightly so, in my view – to make the case that traditional morals in this area should have no bearing on government policy today. I have little doubt that George Washington would have been opposed to gay marriage had someone suggested the possibility to him; if he had given a speech warning about the evils of marriage equality and warning about its potential to corrode traditional notions of family, Andrew would correctly dismiss it as being a product of a far different era. Yet when it comes to foreign affairs, no such discernment is evident in Andrew’s discussion of whether 200 year old advice on how the U.S. should interact with other states needs some updating.

Second, Andrew’s quotes from Washington’s speech are truncated. Here is the paragraph that follows the one with which Andrew ends, and the concluding line:

As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the Public Councils! Such an attachment of a small or weak, towards a great and powerful nation, dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter…

The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to 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.

It is clear from this passage that Washington had a very specific fear in mind, which was the attachment of the U.S. as a small and weak nation to a larger more powerful nation, as that would make the U.S. little more than a satellite or client state of its stronger ally. Washington also saw no reason to have relations with other states for purposes other than commercial ones, which made sense in an era in which the U.S. was protected by two oceans and had little need for security alliances or to take defense considerations into account. All that mattered was trade, since the rest was irrelevant. In this light, taking Washington’s warning as an iron rule makes even less sense, and applying it to Israel – which is the smaller and weaker state in this relationship and not the other way around – stretches the boundaries of absurdity. While there is certainly a conspiracy theory crowd that would argue that Israel is using its influence, in Washington’s words, “to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the Public Councils,” I don’t think Andrew is quite there. Washington was concerned given the U.S. position in the international system at that time, but as the world’s strongest country, if anything his advice should now be flipped on its head. The U.S. simply cannot avoid making entangling alliances with countries; indeed, the entire post-WWII order created by the U.S. is predicated on the assumption that we will be doing exactly that. I understand why using Washington’s words as a way to bash the U.S.-Israel relationship seems attractive, but it rests on a number of extremely shaky fallacies.

There are plenty of arguments to be made about why the U.S. should distance itself somewhat from Israel. I do not agree with them, as I think the U.S. benefits from the relationship in many ways that its benefits outweigh its drawbacks, but there are cogent debates to be had. Referring back to a 200 year old speech that assumed a very different place in the world for the U.S. is not a serious argument though, and that goes doubly for someone who is so eloquent in his advocacy of throwing out traditions and practices that no longer apply to changed circumstances.

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