Patriots' Day: Down On The Farm

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

Something to consider on Patriots’ Day as thousands mass and turn inward to Boston: Our founding fathers cautioned against straying too far from the farm. George Washington in his farewell address laid the cornerstone for American non-intervention. “The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is…to have with them as little political connection as possible,” he advised. Thomas Jefferson in his 1801 inauguration speech preached “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” And President James Monroe in his Monroe Doctrine stressed,  “It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced that we resent injuries, or make preparations for war.”

Breaking ranks two centuries later with the intellectual elite, an enlightened President George Bush in his February State of the Union address railed against talk of isolation, pledging that his administration would “act boldly in freedom’s cause” and seek the end of tyranny” in the world. “We accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed.”

Had he been in the House gallery at the time, Jefferson might have cracked, “say what?” The strict constructionist still has loyal followers. In a back-to-the-future USA Today/Gallup Poll, released Friday, nearly half those surveyed believe “we should mind our own business internationally and let other countries get along as best they can on their own.” 

Bush apparently never got the memo. “My position is clear,” he said last week. “I’m absolutely for this United States of America to stay engaged to the world.”

Could be an insidious marriage, but Bush is at least partially correct in his appraisal that conditions today, which did not exist in Jefferson’s time, make it complicated, if not impossible, to extricate ourselves from the world: a global economy; threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation; and the likelihood of catastrophic, high flying pandemics. The debate, however, ought not to be over isolationism; it must instead be about good choices, and in this arena, the Bush Administration has so bungled its foreign policy with bad decisions, wrong assessments and flag-waving rhetoric as to blur the line between the non-intervention and sound strategy.

Boston University international relations professor Andrew Bacevich, writing recently in the Los Angeles Times, was correct in his appraisal that Washington was not an isolationist, but rather the “founding father of American realism,” the pragmatic discipline of not biting off more than you can digest. “Contriving phony charges of isolationism to dodge tough, practical questions is not only dishonest, but is reckless and irresponsible,” he wrote.

So what’s the game plan, Mr. President? We have a no-win war in Iraq, a Middle East again at its boiling point, nukes on the way, and a nut in Iran who has vowed to wipe Israel off the map. As we collectively head up Heartbreak Hill today, hope the strategy is more concrete than seeking an end to tyranny and delivering the oppressed.

Save that—and leaping tall buildings with a single bound—for Superman!

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