Voice from the Past: George Washington and FDR on Egypt

George Washington on Mount Rushmore

Egypt remains enthralled in revolution. Since the Arab Spring movement nearly two years ago, the US has a. supported the Mubarak regime, b. supported the democratic process in Egypt, c. supported the result of the democratic process–the installation of an illiberal leadership in the Muslim Brotherhood (a group with sworn enmity for Israel and the US), and d. supported the elected leader over the protest of the original student movement.

The problem with all of this “support” is not what side our political power centers are choosing, but that we are allowing elected leaders to choose at all. Foreign policy and statecraft are rarely the game of the American people. Or rather, blue bloods and elitists tend to play foreign politics without much regard for the will of the general American polity.

George Washington somehow foresaw the problem with choosing allies in foreign lands, and said as much in his farewell address:

“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.

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics or the ordinary combination and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world, so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense, but in my opinion it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”

Windy by modern prose, but amazingly prescient, Washington spelled out a foreign policy of such integrity that it is hard to understand why American leadership cannot emulate his example. In Egypt, our better nature supports the self-determination of all people, yet we should be keen to recognize that some peoples are determined to seek the destruction of Western civilization. Americans generally refuse to understand Middle Eastern politics. The role of the military in Egypt was defined in the Nasser years–over 50 years ago–based on the Turkish model. That model is fairly simple–the military is entrusted with keeping the country from turning into a theocracy, regardless of the electoral will. Americans should be cautious to scorn the Egyptian military’s action–they may be the last thing saving Egypt from turning into another Afghanistan.

However, as Washington said, it is none of our concern, really. Look what entanglement has earned us over the 20th century.

But, if you find Washington a bit naive, then I leave you with the words of FDR, in his reference to a Nicaraguan despot in 1939:

“He’s a son of a bitch, but at least he is our son of a bitch.”

Washington DC: FDR Memorial - 3rd Term

That seems to sum up American foreign policy since FDR. As to the Egypt question, we have yet to find ours. Perhaps we shouldn’t.

Washington Photo credit: jimbowen0306 / Foter / CC BY

FDR Photo credit: wallyg / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND


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