The War on Terrorism and The Founders

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.

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2 Responses to “The War on Terrorism and The Founders”

  1. The War on Terrorism and The Founders – Conor Friedersdorf … | the world cares.com Says:

    […] The War on Terrorism and The Founders – Conor Friedersdorf … Tags: admonition, concerns, farewell-address, foreign-affairs, george, most-often, […]

  2. mfarmer Says:

    I think this might be the next part of the public transformation from apathy to informed concern regarding government activities.

    I don’t even know what base conservative, tea party or conservative movement means anymore. Beyond the factions and labels, there’s a nascent opposition to foreign entanglements and nation building. Even within a faction of the tea party there is an Exodus Project, although it ignorantly opposes free trade, also.

    I think people are coming to terms with our historical support for strong national defense vs our historical opposition to foreign interventionism and entanglement — before the turn of the 20th century.

    Knowing what we know now, I’m not sure the American people will be eager to rush into places like Iraq and Afghanistan — although, if we suffer another major attack, who knows what the reaction will be.

    I believe that those conservatives who support neo-con tactics and strategies are dwindling. The unresolved dilemma is how to deal with the reality of terrorism — but, no one seems to have this answer. The problem of terrorism is going to take great leadership, and this is an area where government can shine, but I don’t think Obama and current representatives are up to the task. It’s not only “movement conservatives” who are confused, many Americans of all political stripes praise our founders and support entanglement.

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