Maybe Gov. Romney -- who has expressed his willingness to have the United States "respect" an act of war by Israel against Iran -- needs an American History lesson. We all know what "respect" means coming from Romney's lips. If you were an Iranian what would you think? But what wisdom did our first president, the Father of Our Country, bequeath the man who wants to succeed him 223 years later?
In his farewell address, Washington might well have been thinking a couple of hundred years ahead to Mitt Romney's current foreign travels, especially his visit to Israel. He warned Mitt -- and all of us: "There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard."
In post-Washington America, how little attention we've paid. None at all, you might say. Washington asserted in his address that, outside commercial considerations or what we would today call trade deals, there should be no permanent foreign alliances. In times of great crisis Washington was certain temporary allies, brought together by the necessities of urgent common interest, would suffice. He was likewise certain that when those turbulent times eased or ended so, too, should those temporary alliances.
The sight of presidents and those wishing to be president rushing off to Israel to pledge the lives, treasure and sacred honor of the United States in wars that serve the interests of Israel would have been shocking beyond belief for Washington and for the 56 Colonial patriots who made exactly that pledge when signing the Declaration of Independence. Washington could easily have been thinking ahead to what has become a serious national problem -- our unqualified, unthinking, unchanging support of Israeli foreign policy and what's been mistakenly called the security needs of Israel. Here's what George Washington said:
... 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. 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...
Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.
Washington speaks of the "illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists." Sound familiar? How often have we heard modern American presidents, and all those who wish to be one, proclaim that they stand with Israel as if their interests and ours were one and the same, vital and indistinguishable? Say it often enough and people begin to believe it, despite Washington's warning about an "imaginary common interest" where none actually exists. Worse yet, the greatest American patriot saw the awful dangers of divided loyalty when he spoke of "deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation)" and how such otherwise loyal Americans might betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country in their zeal to serve another. Could the 18th century George Washington have envisioned the 21st century politics and behavior of many American Jews and millions more American Evangelical Christians? But not all Americans share those disturbing allegiances.
George Washington's words speak to many Americans who don't see the need for our country to bow before the specter of Israeli fear. Most estimates are that Israel has between 100 and 400 nuclear weapons. They are acknowledged to possess both the naval and air forces needed to use these weapons effectively. Israel is probably the world's third biggest nuclear power, and unquestionably much more likely to use them, especially as a first strike, than either the United States or Russia.
Can anyone actually claim that such a nation, so armed and so ready, might be existentially threatened by a totally non-nuclear-armed Iran or, for that matter, any potential future enemy with perhaps a handful of nuclear bombs, nothing worthy of being called an arsenal, and no naval or air force capacity to deliver those nuclear weapons in a strike against Israel? Such fears -- which seem to dominate the speeches and policies of American presidents and those running to unseat them -- fail the reasonable laugh test. Practically speaking, it is more likely to fear Israel than it is that Israel should be in fear of anyone.
Washington spoke for those Americans who hold this position -- loyal, patriotic American citizens who do not favor unlimited and unthinking support for just about anything Israel does. And those who do feel this way do so often at their peril. Here's what George Washington had to say. "Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests."
George Washington could teach a thing or two to Mitt Romney. And our first president might even have some sobering comments for our current chief executive.