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“America first”…everywhere?

I’d welcome a comprehensive, factual explanation from our leaders of what America is doing abroad and of why, in the leaders’ estimate, it’s necessary and good to do it.

U.S. President Donald Trump greets members of the military as he arrives July 24 at Raleigh County Memorial Airport in Beaver, W.Va. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

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’s 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 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.


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About Russell Shaw 190 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.

12 Comments

  1. “he U.S. eventually called it quits in Vietnam, and the dominoes didn’t fall …”

    Tell that the millions of Cambodians murdered by Pol Pot and the long years of suffering in Laos under the Paphet Lao. After we abandoned Vietnam. “Sorry you were murdered by vicious communist regimes after we left Vietnam … but despite the facts, the dominoes didn’t fall!”

    Shaw is talking through his hat in this column.

    • I agree. Shaws mistakes remind me of “Those who do not remember their history are condemned to repeat it”. Millions killed by the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese boat people, 2 million of those. Those Southeast Asian countries were nascent democracies, very easy to destabilize by the Russians and Red Chinese. There was a reason we were there.

      We have hald exercises with the Egyptians for over30 years. They are a great way of keeping the peace, simply because we show that we might just get involved. Shaws article argues that American ignorance of world events, and history is legitimate. The simply fact that we are in a sort of Cold War now with Islam is ignored, and people want to wish it away. Look, you can take steps right now to avert world war III, or we can retreat into Know nothing-ism and pretend that there is nothing wrong, and we can wait until World War III starts and gets millions killed.

  2. I don’t understand the focus on what we are doing now, compared to what we have been doing. It seems more people are concerned/frightful of military exercises when there have vastly greater ones done in the past administration. No one seemed to care then so why all the fuss now. Egypt is one of the most moderate middle eastern countries, or at least used to be until Morsi got elected and destroyed that country in quite a short time. The US did nothing as beheadings, crucifixions, heads put on public display were daily. In fact Obama said nothing, did nothing, and in the spirit of the Arab Spring supported Morsi. Where was the outrage then? Obama even penalized Sisi for ousting Morsi. This is why I am so suspicious of the liberal narrative, globalization, and those who try to put fear and division in even the most smallest of issues with this administration.

  3. Did you ask for such an accounting from previous administrations? Specifically, Obama embraced Afghanistan and built up our presence there. Did you ask for an accounting from him? Why is it only the Trump administration? Since you work for the USCCB let me ask for an accounting. Why does the USCCB not condemn those politicians (e.g. Pelosi, Biden, Kerry, Cuomo, et al) who claim to be Catholic but actively expand abortion? Why does the USCCB not forbid priests throughout the US from giving Holy Communion to these excommunicated (per the Catechism) so-called Catholics? Focus more on souls and less on secular politics and the faithful will be better served.

    • i have to agree with you Jim. I understand forgiveness however just before the current election, all faiths and definitely Catholic made a strong stand on voting ones conscience on abortion. I believe that is one of the main reasons Trump won the presidency. It is never mentioned anywhere. Many question and argue to this day why he won and still no mention of the abortion issue. I don’t understand
      God please take care of our nation.

  4. Greetings Mr. Shaw,

    As a 7-year active duty Army veteran and former Army officer, I’d be happy to point you in the right direction. We have what is called the National Military Strategy which is a policy statement periodically published and made public by the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Here is a link to the latest one I could find online:

    http://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Publications/2015_National_Military_Strategy.pdf

    I’m not saying this document will give you all the answers for our recent wars, but it’s the closest thing I can think of to what you ask for:

    “a comprehensive, factual explanation from our leaders of what America is doing abroad and of why…”

    Best regards,
    J. Dean

  5. For all the errors, and despite not having personally requested an accounting from Obama, Bush or Clinton, Mr. Shaw’s point is well taken, and timely. Letting the American people know where we maintain a military presence and why is not an unreasonable request. Our people, and our resources are employed on a huge scale all over the globe. It is not out of line to suggest that we should have the opportunity to make our own judgment regarding America’s role.

  6. The fact that the U.S. used atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however long ago, and the apparent recklessness in the character of Donald Trump both give great credence to a devastating retaliatory action against North Korea in the present situation. This, I believe, is a good thing for the West. If Catholic teaching can be brought into this confrontation — a big ‘if’ — we used to hear how it was legitimate to attack even a ‘threatening’ aggressor.

  7. Shaw: “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?”

    Huh? The fat North Korean boy dear-leader has been practicing ever more perfectly how to attack us with the most destructive nuclear missiles, and we’re not supposed to even warn him?

    Shaw is with USCCB? — okay, never mind!

  8. “”In a democracy, you’re entitled to that.”

    We are a democracy and a republic. We elect leaders we trust to handle things. The entitlement attitude has brought us to the governmental standstill we are at now. Do we need a national debate on every deployment of the military. No.

    As for Trump’s usage of “America First,” I wasn’t as “startled” by it as I was by the knee-jerk reaction against it.

  9. Trump basically is saying that to get us out of the global over-commitment mess his predecessors have gotten us into, there’s some nasty business we have to take care of first, or it will come back to haunt us at home. Like North Korea’s nukes. Like ISIS. Like Venezuela and Cuba. You can’t just pick up your marbles and go home.
    Shaw’s remarks on the Vietnam War really are repugnant for all the reasons — and more — that previous posts have recounted. In retrospect, I think it will be seen that that war was a crucial turning point in the Cold War. The US was able to mount massive response to insurgency strategies.
    And please spare us “inspirational” quotes from Lincoln (who insisted on plunging his own country into the bloodiest war in all human history prior to World War I) and Kennedy (who, among his many other public sins, nearly plunged us into World War III).
    Shame on Shaw for publishing this meretricious screed.

  10. The idea of “my country first” is normal and followed universally in the world — so much so that it is not even mentioned elsewhere, though scrupulously followed. America was in the odd position after World War II and during the Cold War of having to make sacrifices to keep the world from becoming Communist out of sheer desperation. This fundamental American motive of enlightened self-interest was often cloaked in humanitarian expressions, but the generous foreign outlays were definitely pragmatic in their generosity. Genuine concern was seen in a humbler way in numerous charities. Of course, a Christian will have his own view on “my country first” due to his religious perspective, but no country is expected to be run as if monks were running the show.

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