Allegiances and Passionate Attachments
George Washington warned against both passionate attachments and inveterate antipathies to other nations in his Farewell Address. He correctly perceived that both strong sentiments would cause Americans to put the interests of the preferred nation ahead of our own or to lure the U.S. into unnecessary conflicts for reasons that had nothing to do with our security. The most relevant passage of the address says this:
The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a 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. 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.
So likewise, 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. 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 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 [bold mine-DL].
Washington was commenting on the factionalism of his own day and criticizing the tendency of one group to favor France and another to favor Britain, but the wisdom of his remarks is timeless. The impulse to take sides with other states in their regional quarrels against their rivals is as strong and dangerous as ever, and the bad habit of conflating our interests with the interests of another state is unfortunately all too common in our foreign policy debates and our policymaking. As Washington warned, the strong attachment that supporters of a certain state will cultivate leads to “facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists.” In practice, acting as if there is “no daylight” between the U.S. and another state almost always means that the U.S. ends up subordinating its interests to the interests of the other state. Because no two states will ever have consistently aligned interests, adopting an unquestioning and enthusiastic commitment to another state necessarily involves giving one’s own country short shrift. In order to maintain the “illusion of an imaginary common interest,” it becomes necessary for the supporter to claim the other state’s enemies as our own and to make their conflicts ours. This treats the other state’s foes as ours simply because they are rivals with the other state. The other state is declared to be an “ally,” but remarkably one that has no obligations to aid our country. We see this distorted, lopsided relationship today most often with client states with which the U.S. has no formal treaties and no binding defense commitments. The less practically useful a client is to the U.S., the more its supporters insist that the relationship is absolutely vital and unquestionable. We have seen this in recent years with Saudi Arabia and our government’s support for their despicable war on Yemen, and of course we have seen it for decades in the unstinting support that the U.S. has provided Israel for decades.
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has recently came under withering attack from “pro-Israel” hawks in both her own party and in the GOP for having the temerity to question the influence of lobbying organizations that promote the exceedingly close U.S.-Israel relationship. She has been unfairly and falsely accused in trafficking in coded anti-Semitic rhetoric, and now she is facing condemnation from her own fellow Democrats for challenging the stranglehold that the hawkish “pro-Israel” view has had on Congress for decades. Paul Waldman observed that this rush to condemn Omar for bluntly stating rather obvious truths about the politics of Israel in Washington proves her right:
Now, back to Omar. Here’s the truth: The whole purpose of the Democrats’ resolution is to enforce dual loyalty not among Jews, but among members of Congress, to make sure that criticism of Israel is punished in the most visible way possible. This, of course, includes Omar. As it happens, this punishment of criticism of Israel is exactly what the freshman congresswoman was complaining about, and has on multiple occasions. The fact that no one seems to acknowledge that this is her complaint shows how spectacularly disingenuous Omar’s critics are being.
The purpose behind the resolution is the usual effort to police the debate over Israel and Palestine and to stifle dissent that challenges the prevailing views of the leadership in both parties. Omar called attention to the absurd expectation that members of Congress have to express support for Israel, and she refused to play along. She said: “I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.” “Pro-Israel” hawks expect exactly that, but they don’t like it when anyone points out that this is what is expected. That is why the people that are deeply invested in maintaining the “illusion of an imaginary common interest” between the U.S. and Israel are coming after her with such fury, pour encourager les autres. To her credit, Rep. Omar has not backed down in the face of the intense and dishonest attacks against her. In her first few weeks in the House, Rep. Omar has demonstrated a better grasp of the principles outlined in Washington’s Farewell Address and her responsibilities as a U.S. representative than most of her colleagues. Anyone interested in a more forthright and reasonable debate on Israel and foreign policy more generally has to be grateful to her for that.