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July 31, 2007

The First George W. on Blowback


by Ralph R. Reiland

After two four-year terms as president of the United States, George Washington delivered some exceptionally sound advice in his farewell address in 1796, advice that's been basically ignored.

After expressing hope "that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained," Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, referred to "overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty."

In foreign relations, Washington advocated a posture of strict neutrality: "The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an 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."

Not only was a strategy of impartiality, of "good faith and justice toward all nations," the most effectual stance for the nation, it was also the ethical thing to do, Washington maintained: "Religion and morality enjoin this conduct."

In relations with trading partners, the "great rule of conduct" for the United States should be "to have with them as little political connection as possible," Washington advised. "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."

On Aug. 25, 1796, several weeks before his farewell address, Washington succinctly stated his nonintervention policy in a letter to James Monroe: "I have always given it as my decided opinion that no nation had a right to intermeddle in the internal concerns of another; that every one had a right to form and adopt whatever government they liked best to live under themselves."

That concept of America staying out of the internal business of other countries is long gone. From Guatemala, Iran, and Cuba to Chile, Vietnam, and Iraq, "preemptive war" and "regime change" are painted as humanitarian intrusions.

On March 19, 2000, for instance, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged America's past intervention in the internal concerns of Iran: "In 1953, the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh."

Believing that Iranian oil belonged to Iranians, Mossadegh became a U.S. target after he backed a policy of nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British firm that controlled the production and sale of Iranian oil since the early years of the 1900s.

Not unlike George Washington, Mossadegh saw his country getting the short end of the stick in its economic relationship with the British.

The New York Times ran an editorial approving of the coup against Mossadegh, in which it said, "Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism."

Berserk and fanatical nationalism by developed countries was different, i.e., acceptable. We didn't invade Iraq; we "liberated" it.

Following the ousting of Mossadegh, the United States during the next quarter century backed the shah's regime, a dictatorial government that, in Albright's words, "brutally repressed political dissent."

The coup against Mossadegh was "clearly a setback for Iran's political development," said Albright, "and it is easy to see now why so many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs."

"The 1953 CIA coup in Iran was named 'Operation Ajax' and was engineered by a CIA agent named Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt," writes Jacob G. Hornberger, founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

For a time, as Hornberger explains, it looked to U.S. planners like the coup was an unqualified triumph: "U.S. officials, not surprisingly, considered the operation one of their greatest foreign policy successes – until, that is, the enormous convulsion that rocked Iranian society with the violent ouster of the shah and the installation of a virulently anti-American Islamic regime in 1979."

The coup, in essence, paved the way for the rise to power of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and all the rest that's happened right up to 9/11 and beyond.

It's called "blowback," the unintended consequences of covert operations – or as Sheldon Richman, editor of The Freeman, defines it, "the CIA's term for what happens when a foreign operation explodes in one's own face."

It's something that George Washington seemed to understand.

 

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Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.

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