Senate Reads and Ignores Washington’s Farewell Address

Today in the U.S. Senate, Johnny Isakson of Georgia read George Washington’s Farewell Address. Some senator has done so annually since 1896. It’s one of the crueler examples of our leaders celebrating political ideas that they ignore.

We should not adopt positions just because George Washington did. But if the Senate insists on reading a speech mostly about the evils of permanent alliances while almost universally supporting several such alliances, some senator should at least explain the irony.

We remember the address for arguing that confusing our interests with that of other nations would entangle us in foreign controversies, causing us to prepare for or fight wars remote from our interests and therefore to maintain an overgrown military establishment burdensome to economic growth and liberty at home. Almost forgotten is the speech’s furious denunciation of those “ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens” that, by confusing other Americans about the difference between their interests and that of an ally, would:

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.

I wonder how many of our senators realize that those are words Washington would likely have applied to them (albeit privately, as the address was given that way). This is, after all, a Senate that seems to agree with the secretary of state’s recent claim that our military alliances in Asia and Europe should be:

Embedded in the DNA of American foreign policy and not sort of beginning and ending in fits and starts. The engagement has to remain constant… We can’t allow this very big complex world that is so demanding to have the United States absent anywhere.

People are entitled to agree with that opinion, but they should do so without ritual evocation of traditional American ideas about foreign policy that it rejects.