Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 1999

America's Vietnam War experience was vividly portrayed two months ago in a CNN documentary that forms part of the network's series entitled "Cold War." This segment included scenes of rioting antiwar protesters in the United States in 1967-68, including a mob in Chicago in August 1968 that attempted to storm the Democratic Party's convention and prevent the nomination of Hubert Humphrey for president.

At the time I was a senior civilian official on defense secretary Robert McNamara's staff and was astonished to watch the Chicago riot scene on TV, including the Chicago polices aggressive handling of the young rioters. President Lyndon Johnson had decided in the spring that the Vietnam war had become a near debacle for the United States and that it needed to be de-escalated before the November 1968 presidential elections.

This represented a sharp change from the attitude that had prevailed in Washington three years earlier when the president decided to send large combat forces to Vietnam. The view in the White House and the Pentagon in 1965 was that America had the military power, and the will, to defeat a third-rate communist power in Southeast Asia. Implicit also was the belief that the Johnson national security team was smart enough to know how to accomplish this mission in Southeast Asia and at the same time implement the president's Great Society program at home.

By 1968 the "best and brightest" of the Kennedy-Johnson years were proved wrong.

Today we have two somewhat similar antagonists in Iraq and Yugoslavia. No one questions that the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic are a menace to their neighbors. The question for Clinton administration policy makers is this: just how dangerous are Iraq and Yugoslavia to U.S. national security interests? The White House and State Department argue that vital interests are at stake in both cases and must be defended by American military forces, if necessary. In neither case, however, does it wish to use ground forces in a combat role.

Some military and civilian leaders persist in the idea that precision bombing of military targets in Iraq will eventually bring the end of Saddam's regime by stimulating a coup d'etat within its military or encouraging a rebellion by dissident groups. However, sustained bombing of military targets in recent weeks has failed to produce dissension within the military or a popular uprising against this rogue regime.

On Yugoslavia, Secretary of State Madeleine threatens its president, Slobodan Milosevic, with bombing if he does not agree to permit 28,000 NATO forces into Kosovo, which is a part of Serbia and of Yugoslavia. But so far, Milosevic refuses to accept foreign troops on his soil. Are the United States and NATO prepared to use their forces to compel him?

There was talk in Congress about subsidizing a large CIA operation in northern Iraq among Kurdish tribes and eventually bring the downfall of the Baghdad regime through a rebellion. An earlier CIA program with the Kurds failed when one of the tribes split off and made an uneasy truce with Saddam. Some have even suggested that Congress and the president lift an executive order in 1975 prohibiting assassination of a foreign leader. That is not likely to happen.

These proposals skirt the central question in both the Iraq and Kosovo cases: are Iraq's and Yugoslavia's governments so dangerous to America's interests that we must take the lead in organizing military actions to oust them?

The Clinton administration seems painfully aware of the public reaction in 1993 when eighteen American soldiers were killed in Somalia trying to stop a civil war among rival tribes. Americans did not understand why these troops were in that role, and within a week Congress demanded that the president end American military involvement. With that experience in mind, the Clinton national security team now prefers bombing in Iraq, and the threat of bombing in Yugoslavia, to achieve its aims. Still, most experts doubt that bombing alone will resolve the basic problem in either country: a dictatorial regime that threatens its neighbors.

The rhetoric used by the Clinton Administration to sell its policy on Kosovo sounds much like the arguments we heard about Vietnam in the 1960s. Some have dubbed it the "domino theory," an enlargement of a local conflict. Although Vietnam was presented to the public and Congress as a vital U.S. interest in Southeast Asia, it did not rise to a level that required deployment of half a million troops and very large casualties. When the costs increased substantially, the public turned against the war and Richard Nixon was elected president. The rhetoric today sounds similar and the consequences could turn out to be similar, if the public is not persuaded by the administration.

Kosovo is a test case for U.S. leadership at the end of this millennium and it is essential, before military operations are launched in Yugoslavia, that Congress be involved in determining the level of U.S. interest and of our commitment.

I am reminded of an important book published in 1966 by Senator William Fulbright, a critic of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, entitled "The Arrogance of Power." It described what the Arkansas senator saw as the arrogant attitude of top policy makers in the executive branch, specifically their posture on Vietnam. He urged in 1965 that President Johnson ask Congress for authorization to send ground troops to Vietnam, but his advice was rejected.

Perhaps policy makers and pundits today should dust off this insightful little volume and consider whether a somewhat more modest view of America's world role is in order.

File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST

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