Every summer, thousands of high school and college students flock to Washington, D.C., to learn about our government and meet senior government officials.  These invaluable internships give tomorrow’s leaders an up-close-and-personal experience they could never get from mere classroom work.

As a former senior official, I often participate in debates and panel discussions convened for the benefit of these interns. Last week, I found myself on stage in a debate entitled: “After Bin Laden: What Next for the Fight against Terror?”  After the opening remarks, students asked questions about issues ranging from enhanced interrogation tactics to the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.  Some minutes in, a college-aged boy rose, not to ask a question, but to make a statement.

With a smirk on his face, he identified himself as John and confidently asserted, “I feel America is, in fact, a bad actor on the international stage.  Throughout the history of U.S. foreign policy, we have supported numerous dictators including Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.  As a result, we cannot claim to be a positive international force.  The U.S. is just a bad actor.”

My liberal opponent’s tepid response to the student’s allegations reflected the “progressive” mush so often fed to students.  When it was my turn, I responded more succinctly: “Well John, I couldn’t disagree with you more.”

The student seemed shocked that someone would question his “feelings” or his conclusion.

I noted that the U.S. government voluntarily provides more foreign aid to other countries than any other country in the world.  Additionally, the U.S. provides more humanitarian aid in the wake of national disasters than any other country.  Moreover, Americans provide more voluntary service workers than any other nation. Organizations such as the Peace Corps send Americans to serve the citizens of nations around the globe.

John’s smirk was now gone.  I continued.

In rare instances, the U.S. has declared war on other nations. However, our actions were not driven by a desire for more land, the driving forces behind almost all wars.  In both World Wars, hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers sacrificed their lives and the U.S. government spent billions of dollars to stop tyranny and secure freedom for millions of people. However, the U.S. walked away from each war without adding a single piece of land.  The U.S. only requested a place to bury their dead soldiers.

I told John to go to the beaches of Normandy—as I did when stationed in Europe as a Navy Lieutenant—and look at the rows of headstones at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  The setting might lead him to reconsider his feeling that America is nothing but a bad international actor.

I moved on to discuss the general impact of the U.S. on the rest of the world.  In the last 50 years, America has been a leader in civil rights for minorities and women.  In more recent years, U.S. soldiers have rooted out ruthless regimes and leaders.  We have freed more Muslims from oppressive regimes than almost any other country.

In conclusion, I reminded the students that America is “the indispensable country.”  Whether we like it or not, countless nations rely on the U.S. for economic stability and military security.  However, despite the integral role played by the U.S. in international affairs, we must not be hubristic or boastful.  And while pride for our nation’s significance on the world stage must be tempered by great humility, we must also not shy away from the facts.  “Facts are facts” and we have been a force for liberty and freedom throughout our history.

John slumped forward as I finished.  The audience broke into a polite round of applause. Most obviously did not share John’s sentiments.  We have reason to hope for our future.