The most often quoted parts of George Washington’s farewell address are his admonition to avoid permanent entanglements in foreign affairs and his concerns about the worst features of political parties. On re-reading the speech, however, I’m most struck by this passage:
It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence … In the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it.
As I reflect on the behavior of the United States since the September 11 terrorist attacks, I am heartened by the countless examples of benevolence practiced by the best among our armed forces. Anyone on active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan can tell you a story about a comrade who risked his life to save an innocent civilian, and so many folks risk their lives everyday in military efforts that they genuinely believe to be beneficial to average Afghans and Iraqis, whether or not their judgment is accurate. But is it possible to argue that our foreign policy as a whole is guided by exalted justice and benevolence? On the contrary, it’s fair to say the prevailing American attitude in the War on Terrorism is that we face a particularly vicious enemy, and fighting it requires us to do unsavory things like launch drone strikes that kill civilians, use harsh interrogation tactics on suspected terrorists, and hold folks whose innocence the government itself acknowledges for months or years on end.
There are people who honestly believe that this approach is a necessary evil in the modern world — that it is naive to think otherwise. Arguments to that effect are ones I’ll always consider with an open mind, though as yet I’m antagonistic toward them. What galls is when the folks making these arguments simultaneously invoke George Washington, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as though the tactics of the War on Terrorism are vindicated by the Founders and the ideas for which they stood.
In this piece at Newsweek, I argue at greater length that whatever one thinks of movement conservatism’s approach to the War on Terrorism, it is inconsistent with our Founding ideas in several significant ways.