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Wednesday, July 24, 2013
The confluence this month of two historic events, celebration of our Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, reminds Americans of the huge debt we owe to ancestors for preserving values we associate with nationhood.
The war for independence that followed the Declaration was nearly lost on several occasions, but the valor shown by thousands of citizen-soldiers willing to die for liberty, plus the tenacity of a great soldier-statesman, George Washington, brought victory at Yorktown in 1781. Thirteen American colonies soon had their independence, but could they forge a nation properly called the United States?
The momentous three-day Battle of Gettysburg marked the turning point of the Civil War, which eventually produced the national unity that had eluded the country for nearly a century.
The war’s casualties. The cost of this epic battle was enormous: Union forces and Confederates each suffered 23,000 casualties, 46,000 young Americans killed, wounded, captured or missing. In 1863, the population of the entire country was 31.4 million. If we calculate those loses in terms of today’s population (roughly 315 million), the Battle of Gettysburg would have cost our country nearly half a million casualties.
Why did soldiers endure such huge losses and continue fighting? New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote (July 2) that research shows Northern troops at Gettysburg were imbued with the idea they were saving the union while Confederates were trying to destroy it. What’s remarkable is that until the war’s final year, President Lincoln had no need to call on Congress for military conscription, because his army was well-supplied with tens of thousands of volunteers.
In World War II, a similar determination to defend the nation against a threat to its democratic way of life permeated the national consciousness following Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and Germany’s declaration of war. World War II resulted in more than a million U.S. casualties: 405,000 killed and 671,000 wounded. Some of us recall with awe the national unity that enveloped the country behind a massive war effort to defeat Germany and Japan.
Victory in that war thrust the United States into a world leadership role it wasn’t ready to accept. But the Korean War in Asia and Soviet moves in Germany persuaded President Harry Truman and Congress that the danger of Soviet aggression was a vital threat to world peace. Since then, the U.S. has fought major wars in Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq, and smaller ones in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Now, the Middle East is in crisis and calls for American intervention are again being heard.
Egypt’s new crisis. Egypt is a crucial test of American foreign policy, not only in the Middle East but in every region where Islam is a major force in national politics. The outcome of the struggle for power there is of greater importance than civil war in Syria, for two reasons: Egypt is by far the largest and most influential Arab country, and the outcome of its struggle will have wide repercussions across the entire Middle East, including Iran.
Washington, however, has much less influence in Egypt today than it did five years ago. The end of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule two years ago opened other Arab states to revolutionary forces unleashed by the Arab Spring. The Egyptian military’s ouster of an elected but incompetent government headed by Mohammed Morsi means that conservative forces are again in the ascendancy. Morsi’s ouster is applauded in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the Gulf States, countries where the Arab Spring was never allowed to flower.
What should U.S. policy be in this unfolding crisis?
The Washington Post, in an editorial titled “After Egypt’s Coup” (July 7), deplored the actions of Egypt’s military in ousting an elected government and criticized President Obama for not condemning the coup. It argued: “Both in public and in private the United States should be demanding an end to military repression and quick steps toward compromise with the Islamists.”
One can applaud the objective of a compromise solution in Egypt. But the notion that Washington can “demand” good behavior of Cairo’s leaders sounds more like nostalgia for a lost world of American dominance in the Middle East instead of a realistic approach. A low American profile, patience, helpful counsel, but not demands, will be a wiser policy for Washington in dealing with Egypt’s unfolding, longer-term crisis.
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