Ron Paul’s Farewell Address?
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
After watching Congressman Ron Paul get booed at Tampa, we were struck with the thought that it could be, in effect, his last address. The congressman from Texas had been winning his share of the Republican debates by focusing on limited government, constitutional fundamentals, and sound money, the virtues of which are thrown into ever sharper relief with each lunge by the Democrats for federal power. But the booing he got last night was no small thing, coming as it did when he suggested that al Qaeda had attacked us because America has not only occupied Muslim holy lands at Saudi Arabia but failed to give Palestinian Arabs “fair treatment,” as he put it, and killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
The audience at Tampa made it clear that it would have none of this. No doubt its sentiment is widely shared throughout the Republican polity and even among Democrats. In Tampa it turned out to be Rick Santorum who called Dr. Paul on the point, rebuffing the Texan’s suggestion that America bears responsibility for the attacks the 10th anniversary of which our country has been marking with such dignity. The way television debates work, little time was available to stretch out the talk to a discussion of America’s intercourse with the world. This is where the conversation might have turned to one of our own favorite documents, George Washington’s Farewell Address.
Washington’s Farewell — really a written announcement of the first president’s decision not to seek a third term, a document leaked to one of the pro-Federalist newspaper editors, David Claypoole of the American Daily Advertiser — is the address in which he warned his friends and fellow citizens against entangling “our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice.” It’s the message in which Washington advanced the idea that it is “our true policy” to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” It’s a message that dovetails nicely with Congressman Paul’s brand of libertarianism, and it would have been illuminating to hear the candidates debate it.
Our prediction is that the libertarian, or isolationist, line of reasoning would work only up to a point. Eventually one of the candidates — Mr. Santorum, perhaps, or Mrs. Bachmann; we’re merely speculating — would have come to what Washington said after he warned against “permanent alliances with any portion of the world.” He said such alliances should be avoided “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 it, therefore,” Washington wrote, “let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.” In other words, Washington was not an absolutist on foreign entanglements. He was for avoiding them where we were able, but for keeping our commitments. At the time the issue was relations between us and France and England. The debate we’d like to hear is over what the candidates reckon Washington would have made of our current commitments, most of which, after all, were freely entered in to by both sides and in service to the same cause of liberty of which Dr. Paul often speaks.
Our own conversations with Dr. Paul leave us with the view that he is not so simplistic as he sometimes sounds. He is prepared to unsheathe against al Qaeda one of the two great war powers of the Constitution, namely letters of marque and reprisal, which would authorize private parties to take the war to the enemy the way we once did in respect of the Barbary pirates. Legislation he has introduced to go after al Qaeda via this method would establish billions of dollars in bounties. The way the debate went at Tampa, there was little time to get a full discussion of all this. If Congressman Paul doesn’t find a way to have such a discussion, the danger he faces is that the remarks for which he was booed at Tampa may well turn out to be his own l’envoi.