Woodrow Wilson won reelection as president in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war”—even as bloody world war raged in Europe. Less than four months into his second term, Wilson changed his mind: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Four days later, Congress voted to declare war on Germany.
With those eight words, Wilson left a legacy that U.S. presidents have embraced ever since: As a world power, the U.S. has a moral obligation to intervene in international situations were freedom and basic human rights are under attack. World War II reinforced the principle, but bloody, prolonged interventions in Korea, Vietnam and most recently Iraq and Afghanistan have tempered the nation’s enthusiasm.
We’re told President Trump has “a plan” for Afghanistan, already the longest war in American history, involving more troops and no “nation building.”
Frankly, the question before the nation is morally and politically complicated. The U.S. has shown that some parts of the world are more important to make safe for democracy than others—oil-rich Middle Eastern nations, yes; under-developed African nations, not so much. Even when greater human atrocities are plainly verifiable.
We live in a world where principles and politics inevitably collide, coloring our notion of right and wrong. We make our best judgments in hindsight, but in the chaos of the present, moral principle seems to reside most often in shades of gray. —DR