What does ‘America first’ mean?

A few weeks back I woke up one morning to the news that 200 U.S. troops were participating in war games with the Egyptian army. My immediate, unpremeditated reaction was: Good grief — Egypt. What next?

 

A little checking soon showed me that those 200 American soldiers were simply reviving — on a small scale, at that — a practice suspended during the Obama years. It also told me that among those who claim expertise on such matters, Egypt is considered at risk of an armed Islamist insurgency.

So it’s a good idea for Americans to practice war games with the Egyptians, isn’t it? Or is it? What happens if and when it’s no longer a game?

As I was mulling those questions, it occurred to me that — like many other Americans, I suspect — I’d welcome a comprehensive, factual explanation from our leaders of what America is doing abroad and of why, in the leaders’ estimate, it is necessary and good to do it. As things stand, I don’t really feel I have one.

Allow me to put that in perspective. Some of us can remember five full-fledged wars waged by America in our lifetimes: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and Iraq. The rationale for some of these was obvious, but in other cases doubtful at best.

That was painfully true of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. American fought in Vietnam in response to the “domino theory” — the nations of Southeast Asia would topple like a row of dominoes if the U.S. didn’t halt the Communist tide in Vietnam. But the U.S. eventually called it quits in Vietnam and the dominoes didn’t fall. In Iraq, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a hostile tyrant were the explanation. As we discovered, however, Saddam Hussein didn’t have WMDs and it would be hard to say who’s better off today for what we did there.

That brings us to Afghanistan. Whether you call the American involvement there a war or not, we’ve been at it nearly 16 years. President Trump recently announced that he was adding several thousand more troops to the U.S. military commitment, thus bringing the total to around 13,000 — not counting an unknown number in a CIA clandestine force in which, says the New Times, several thousand Americans have fought up to now.

And what about Korea, where America faces the dreadful prospect of fighting a nuclear conflict? The U.S. so far is the only country to have used these awful weapons in war. If circumstances require, will we become the only country to use them again?

Sometimes American presidents have explained their policies in terms at once truthful and compelling. Think of Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address, solemnly declaring the Civil War a struggle to preserve the United States as one nation in the face of a profound conflict arising from the sin of slavery. Or John Kennedy, in the middle years of the Cold War, calling on Americans to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’.”

In his inaugural address and again lately at the United Nations, President Trump startled listeners by repeating the pre-World War II isolationist slogan “America first.” Does this mean he considers military commitments and interventions stretching around the globe to be putting America first? Whatever he thinks, he and his associates owe the country an honest account of how they see America’s role in the world. In a democracy, you’re entitled to that.

Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington and author of American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017