As Egypt erupts into violent protests, there is much discussion about what Barack Obama should do. Should he continue to support the tyrant Hosni Mubarak as the United States has been doing for three decades? Or should he support the pro-democracy movement? And which ever option he chooses, will it matter? With U.S. support will Mubarak be able to retain power and make a peaceful transition to a democratic government? If the U.S. supports the pro-democracy protesters, will the overthrow of the government lead to tranquility and prosperity or a new tyranny, possibly a Muslim extremist one? So many questions and so little certainty.
It may seem odd to look to the Founding Fathers. What would the Founders know about a situation like this when they never faced a similar one? To which I can reply quite EXACTLY. In his Farewell Address, George Washington said:
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. 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 combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
The Founding Fathers were not isolationists. The early United States fought the Barbary pirates, were involved in a Quasi-War with France, and then a real war with Great Britain in 1812. During the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers allied themselves with the French and the Dutch (and indirectly with Spain through France) to defeat the British. But in the case of the American Revolution, America was receiving support, not giving it, and those foreign countries supported America for their own reasons: to weaken Great Britain. And in the case of Barbary Wars, Quasi-War, and the War of 1812, the United States was defending its shipping rights. The Founding Fathers never went to war to conquer; only to protect US rights. As James Monroe said:
In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced that we resent injuries, or make preparations for our defense.
The foreign policy of the United States was one of “peace, commerce, and friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none,” as Jefferson said in his inaugural address.
What would the Founders do about Egypt? In the absence of violations of American territory or attacks on American ships, they would probably have done nothing. More importantly, the Founders would never have supported a tyrant, or a foreign government. The United States has given Egypt more than $28 billion since 1975 but its people have benefited little.1
Reportedly, however, Hosni Mubarak had amassed a net worth of $40 to $70 billion.2
The Founding Fathers would have rejected such an “entangling alliance” and been tightfisted with the national treasury.
I wish the Egyptians the best of luck. I hope and pray they gain freedom, peace, and prosperity. As for the United States, if we have anything of value to offer Egypt it is not our billions, but the example of our Constitution and the principles it embodies.