Hatred also is short-lived; but that which makes the splendour of the present and the glory of the future remains for ever unforgotten. Make your decision, therefore, for glory then and honour now, and attain both objects by instant and zealous effort: do not send heralds to Lacedaemon, and do not betray any sign of being oppressed by your present sufferings, since they whose minds are least sensitive to calamity, and whose hands are most quick to meet it, are the greatest men and the greatest communities. – Pericles’ 3rd Oration, History of the Peloponnesian War
An apocryphal quote attributed to Churchill holds that “Americans will always do the right thing, after all other possibilities have been exhausted.” Attribution to Churchill certainly brings to mind our involvement in the Second World War, which was somewhat reticent but eventually full-throated and on the side of the angels. We are no longer that country, though, and it is difficult to imagine a scenario in the current political climate in which an overwhelming majority of Americans would favor any large “boots on the ground” style military intervention. That being the case, the American people should take a long, hard look at the type of country they wish to be in the 21st century.
The questions we should consider as a citizenry are not ones of strategic military planning or even ones of geopolitics: they are moral questions. What do we stand for? What, if anything, should be our role in largely regionalized conflicts? Most importantly, given President Trump’s flirtation with dramatically changing our commitments to the U.N., what do we owe our allies, and how far should we be willing to go to keep our promises?
Americans have, perhaps not always accurately, seen themselves as morally upright, as the good guys. Between WWII and the fall of the Soviet Union, almost all American military intervention had one overarching purpose: checking the advancement of Communism. It didn’t always succeed (Vietnam), but we showed that we were, in fact, willing to fight. The new century offers the same choice in the form of both Islamic extremism and a resurgent nationalistic Russia.
One obvious example of the latter is our obligation to Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. The Obama administration's fecklessness combined with the Trump administration’s apparent Russophilia do not bode well for our willingness to hold up our end of the bargain. This should quite frankly be viewed as a stain on our national character: that a country so long under the Russian boot gave up her nuclear weapons at our behest in exchange for a promise that we would be there in her time of need, only to be largely abandoned by us, is shameful, regardless of any geopolitical advantages gained from checking Russian expansion.
The moral question becomes even more complicated in the Middle East. We were, as a country, willing to go to war after 9/11. There is an argument to be made that our failures in the Middle East are due largely to the inability of Americans in a world of 24/7 news cycles and instant video uploads to stomach what has to be done to win a war against a guerrilla-style insurgency. But those instant videos work the other direction: can there be any doubt that images of Syrian refugees haven’t had a tremendous impact on the calls of so many Americans to take in those we can, and even for calls of heavier intervention by our armed forces (remember that Hillary Clinton called for ground troops)? The technology isn’t going away; never again will large scale slaughter go unnoticed by the American public at large. So where do we draw a red line that we actually mean?
Our foreign policy has become increasingly schizophrenic and political, more about garnering votes among different constituencies than what is in our national interest or the morally correct thing to do. The world is only going to grow more dangerous and chaotic, and an America which can’t be relied upon past the next election cycle will not be of much use to anybody and is already creating a vacuum which less scrupulous actors are more than willing to fill. The danger is that eventually the public opinion pendulum will swing back the other way, and acting then will cost us far more.
The United States can’t and won’t take in every displaced person. We do not owe the world protection. But if we wish to end oppressive regimes, whether terrorist groups or recognized states, we will have to accept that innocent civilians, women and children, will die in the process. We will expend lives and treasure, so the decision must be understood as one we are willing to see through til the end. Above all, we should be steadfast friends of those allies who believe in liberal Western-style government and to whom we have in the past given our word. As Americans, we cannot leave our friends in the lurch.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.