Arguments about the founding fathers' intent tend to be stupid. They are the province of elitist dullards and libertarian misrememberers. When not absurdly speculative, their cases ignore that our framers intended minorities and women to be chattel. But every so often, a framer speaks precisely to our modern condition.
Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who may soon lose his job—addressed Congress with a controversial speech about the evils of Islam in general and Iran in particular. As my colleague J.K. Trotter pointed out on Monday, the speech was controversial even before it happened. It was controversial because the United States is in the midst of a historic, if problematic, diplomatic negotiation with Iran over its stated ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons, and Netanyahu thinks negotiating with evil Iran is evil. House Republicans believe the same thing—or at least they purport to—and so, led by Speaker John Boehner, they invited Netanyahu to speak, and to undermine President Obama's political process, a move whose stupidity was rivaled only by its unoriginality.
What does this have to do with George Washington, a long-dead denture-loving cropper who fought Hessians and chased slaves? In 1796, the first American president decided to retire from office, worn down to the nub by the nation's nascent backbiting political culture. But before leaving office, Washington delivered a much-ballyhooed farewell address offering a long list of prescriptions to his would-be successors—"the disinterested warnings of a parting friend," he called them. Chief among his suggestions was a warning that seems eerily prescient in light of the House GOP's convenient courting of Netanyahu. It was an admonition that political partisans should not divide and weaken the U.S. by making alliances with foreign leaders against internal opponents:
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension...serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
Factional politics were already scurrilous and divisive in Washington's day; they were "a spirit not to be encouraged" in a democracy, he said. The solution was for elected officials to stay in their legally specified lanes:
It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another.
So often, these words have been cited as a check on the very imperial presidency that Washington's tenure helped bring about. The executive branch of government has expanded ever since, its halls stuffed with presidential partisans, and it's never a bad idea to be skeptical of this power. But Washington's warning goes for congressional partisans, too: Obstruction of executive ambitions is one thing; dictating policy to the president—especially foreign policy—is another.
Conservatives today get some things right about Washington. He believed that America was an exceptional nation, for example, and that believing in America's blessings yielded good governance. But the substance of that governance looks nothing like the jingoistic blatherings of today's hawkish right wing.
First, Washington warned, policy should never be based on the slapping of unchanging "good ally" and "evil enemy" labels on foreign nations:
In the execution of such a plan nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded and that in place of them just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. 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.
Compare this to Netanyahu's speech to Congress yesterday, which ostensibly held as its thesis the idea that if you love America—and you must!—then you must love Israel, and there can be no Israel outside of Netanyahu and his partisans:
I want to thank you, Democrats and Republicans, for your common support for Israel, year after year, decade after decade.
I know that no matter on which side of the aisle you sit, you stand with Israel.
The remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States has always been above politics. It must always remain above politics.
Washington would be aghast at this rhetoric uttered by a foreign politician invited to the well of Congress by a single political party's leadership; he warned that "a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils."
Of course we should have an abiding interest in seeing Israelis—Jews, Arabs, and others—live peaceably and democratically. The world's peoples are intricately more interdependent than in the days of Washington. But that's precisely why smarmy simplicity is no solution to the problems of the Middle East, and why we should refuse to consume the hawkish drivel that Netanyahu spoon-feeds us in a TV moment staged by Republicans looking to score fast points against a sitting president. As Washington put it, that kind of reflexive thinking leads to death and mayhem:
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 turns America into a hypocritical, iniquitous, coddling parent, multiplying its problems:
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 serves the GOP's stupid, avaricious, ironically anti-republican ambitions perfectly:
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.
Netanyahu made the most of this absurd moment, asserting that the American patriot is an Israeli patriot is a Likudnik, and thus if you are a good American, you must also hate Iran, and you must do it in a specific way, by favoring the hawkish posture toward Iran that Israel's current prime minister holds:
Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us... But Iran's regime is not merely a Jewish problem, any more than the Nazi regime was merely a Jewish problem... Iran's regime poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also the peace of the entire world.
Foreign policy is always a complex navigation through hazardous waters: At any moment, a ship of state can ground itself on the interests of many actors. The worst course anyone could take is a simplistic one, one that makes a monolith of every culture and nation. Congress made Netanyahu the stand-in for all of Israel; Netanyahu made Iran Israel's incontrovertible enemy, the 21st century Nazi state, one that seeks nuclear armament not for deterrence, not for the trappings of superpower status, not as a provocation to gain concessions, but as a means to fulfill its evil destiny: the extinction of Israel and the Jewish people.
We Americans gobble up this spicy tripe at our own risk; it will ulcerate our body politic—as Washington knew so well:
Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times, it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations has been the victim.
Perpetual hatred of the other is a fantastic expedient for a faction seeking domestic power. It is also horrible for liberty and peace. These are not the words of Noam Chomsky; this is a slave-owning Virginian general speaking to us.
Nevertheless, the House GOP has made such hatred the centerpiece of its brand. It is how the brand distinguishes itself from the cheese-eating surrender-monkey caricature it offers of Democratic governance. "As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot," Washington complained:
How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with 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.
This is precisely the situation House Republicans have seen fit to reinforce. Netanyahu's aims are baldly and dishonestly domestic political ones, notwithstanding his smarmy speechifying to the contrary. "I know that my speech has been the subject of much controversy," he said yesterday. "I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention."
That's an insult to the listener's intelligence. Netanyahu's speech was broadcast live in Israel at news hour, 6 p.m., two weeks ahead of a nationwide vote that will determine whether he will remain in power atop a crumbling right-wing coalition. Part of that coalition has bailed on him. The center and the left in Israel are gaining momentum. His opinion on Iran is not Israel's; it is an albatross garbling a death rattle that Team Boehner wishes to hang around the neck of the American body politic. And just as Washington predicted, Team Boehner is succeeding, because not even the specter of Islamofascism can kill an American republic as quickly as cynical partisan fearmongering.