soldier-n-childNearly every day on Facebook and in email I receive some graphic that tells me to thank God for the soldiers who are protecting my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Such protection presumes a threat seeking to deny one of those liberties. But when I look at the threats the United States faces in the world today, I don’t see any country or terror group capable of any credible threat to my right to free speech, or liberty, or freedom of religion.

The two wars fought by our country over the past decade were waged for reasons other than the protection of our core values. In the case of Afghanistan, we waged war against a sovereign nation who had not attacked us because their territory was ostensibly being used by Al Qaeda as a place to gather and train terrorists whose mission it was to attack US interests around the world. The attack on our homeland on September 11, 2001 was one episode in a long chain of terror attacks that sought not to destroy the United States or deny its citizens of any particular rights, but rather to embarrass the United States by showing that we were perhaps not as powerful and influential as we seemed. While the loss of 3,000 lives was a tragedy for the nation, it did nothing to materially weaken the United States.

I would argue that the political response in the form of the Patriot Act did more harm to our personal liberties than any foreign threat in the history of our republic. We willingly handed the government the ability to electronically monitor all of our voice and data communications, at any time, for virtually any reason. And it was all done in the name of security. While it was never part of Al Qaeda’s plan or stated goals, our own Congress and President handed our foes a stunning victory, wrapped in the blessing of the American people.

The war in Iraq was waged for reasons way may never clearly understand. What we do know is that the war was waged under the utterly false pretense of a threat that the Iraqi regime could somehow use its nonexistent stockpile of WMD against the US or our allies. It was a fantasy manufactured by a politically motivated White House and a weak intelligence community that had been decimated under the Clinton administration. We took our eye off the ball for nearly a decade and when we needed to act, we got it horribly and tragically wrong. The result was thousands of dead and wounded American soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors, and more than 100,000 dead Iraqis. Where was the defense of our liberties in that debacle?

So if our military is engaging in wars and actions around the world that have nothing to do with the defense of our liberty, then what exactly are they fighting for? A cynical person might say they are fighting for corporate interests such as big oil or the defense industry. Others may say we are simply engaging in nation-building, the polite modern term for imperialism. Personally I see aspects of both of those views at work but I think the truth is larger and ultimately more important to our long-term strategic interests.

I believe our role in a post-911 world is to project the moral authority of the United States around the world. Our liberties and freedoms won on the battlefields of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and in the forests and tropical islands of WWII, have far less value unless they can improve the lives of as many people as possible. Freedom is a gift we ought not hoard, but instead we should share with as many nations as are willing to do the hard work necessary to embark on the path to democracy.

As we look around the world of 2013 we see many countries who are in the messy process of self-determination. The United States is involved directly in each one through our diplomats at the State Department and the Foreign Service, through our support of global agencies via the UN, and in some cases through direct involvement with our military. Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Myanmar, Cambodia, Mali, Zimbabwe, and many other countries need America to be strong both militarily and morally. Without our leadership and the ability to project our ideals and power around the globe, these countries can perhaps never attain the freedoms they seek.

So when you see one of those flag-waving posts on Facebook, remember that American blood is being shed not for your freedom, but really for the chance for freedom for someone half way around the world you will likely never meet. That, I believe, is a greater gift than simply protecting that which we already have.

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