"Preserve, Protect, and Defend" America, Not Necessarily Americans
A fair number of Americans, including American Presidents, assert that the first duty of the President of the United States is to protect the American people, to protect Americans.
And then a smaller group of us pedantic sorts, especially small-r republicans, assert that no, the key duties of the President are to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed," serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States, and, as s/he swears or affirms — no American may be required to swear an oath — to "preserve, protect[,] and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Now does "Constitution" here mean every clause, phrase, and mark of punctuation in the document? The Constitution in its original form — e.g., with the assumption that slavery legally exists and that new slaves could be imported until 1808? Of course not. "Constitution" in the oath means the written document, as amended, plus something like "Constitution" in the British sense of the term.
I'd put it that the primary duty of the President is to defend the Republic, the American Republic as constituted in its essentials by the document, The Constitution of the United States. Let's put it, the primary duty of the President is to protect not Americans, but America.
This idea is in useful tension with the commonplace truth from Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan to John Stuart Mill in On Liberty to our own Declaration of Independence that the primary duty of any government is to protect its people.
Most Americans are either loud about their patriotism or keep their mouths shut; relatively few Americans get arrested any given year — so most Americans, most respectable, voting Americans, would be safer in a police state. Insofar as we have avoided a police state, we put at risk a fair number of decent, innocent Americans.
If the tree of liberty is fertilized from time to time with the blood of patriots, it is also fertilized with the blood of men, women, and children who die, or are wounded or maimed, because we make the State prove people guilty and grant bail and allow free speech to those who will insult God and the Prophet Mohammed. Well, and so forth through the Bill of Rights and traditional ideals of liberty.
At various times, however, and the years following 11 September 2001 have made up one of those times, there has been consistent over-emphasis on the part of US Presidents and the Congress and other leaders to protect Americans and consistent reluctance to tell the American people to toughen up and be willing to take casualties — civilian casualties — to preserve traditional rights.
There has been a failure to explain that even furthering US interests can have its costs, and a balancing favor to continue whether perceived interests are US interests and just what we mean be the interests of America.
We cannot have US ambassadors walled up in fortress embassies; we cannot have US Special Forces holed up in secure areas: to do their jobs they must get out among the people, including among people who want to kill them and sometimes succeed.
Ambassador Chris Stevens died doing his job, as did two of the CIA security officers who died responding to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in Libya, along with at least one other American.
To protect America, in some cases even to just achieve US policy goals, some Americans have to risk death or horrible injury, and sometimes they suffer.
The first duty of the President is to protect America and further its interests, and to do so s/he may have to get some Americans killed. Each President need to explain this nasty fact to each generation of the American public, and each generation has to debate where to strike a balance.
On 22 April 1971, speaking for Vietnam Veterans Against the War — against what we Americans call the Vietnam War — John Kerry asked rhetorically, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Or, arguably, worse than a mistake: we continue to debate the morality of the Vietnam War. What isn't debatable is that the President and government of the United States can err, horribly, and order Americans to kill and die in conflicts that are not necessary to preserve America, wars that hurt America.
This idea, too, needs to enter the debate.
A bumper sticker is not a philosophy, Charlie Brown, and one-liners on "the first duty of the President" aren't serious consideration of difficult issues.
We Americans need to toughen up and be willing to take risks necessary to preserve our freedoms (and our dignity). For example, making US airports less secure but freer puts lives at risk. So be it, I say: I sometimes take planes, and I'm for loosening up security. Let's debate that.
We Americans need to get our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and much of the rest of the world and shift money from "kinetic" military operations into the civilian economy. Such pulling back will save military lives and may put at risk civilians. So be that as well — and let us debate that also.