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



As the war against Afghanistan's Taliban regime winds down and a new government takes over in Kabul, strong voices are heard in Washington urging George Bush to turn America's military power against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Republican senators Trent Lott and John McCain and the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate, Joseph Lieberman, are among congressional leaders calling for action to topple Iraq's tyrannical regime, which they accuse of producing chemical and biological weapons. Conservative columnists, among them George Will and William Safire, argue that Washington erred by not crushing the Iraqi regime during the 1991 Gulf War. In this view, Bush's foreign policy team shouldn't be deterred by the opposition of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan to oust Saddam Hussein. These pundits are convinced that Arab governments will support Washington once it launches a serious military campaign against Iraq.

Whenever a president decides to use U.S. forces abroad, as occurred in Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan during the last decade, the National Security Council (NSC) assesses the costs and risks. President Bush's decision to attack Afghanistan in October was a relatively easy one because the Taliban government harbored Osama bin Laden's terrorist leaders who had planned the September 11 attack on our homeland.

A key consideration in deciding on military action is whether the public will support a war if it is prolonged. In the cases cited here, the president had to weigh his foreign policy objectives against the potential costs of achieving them. If hostilities were not ended in a brief period and with minimal casualties, it was said, the president would be in serious political trouble at home.

U.S. foreign interventions


The first major war fought by the United States after World War 11 came in 1950 when President Truman decided that North Korea's invasion of South Korea, supported by Moscow and Beijing, was a serious threat to Japan and other U.S. interests in Asia. Within three months and modest casualties, American and allied forces defeated North Korea's armies and forced their withdrawal from the south. Truman then decided to enlarge the war and unite all of Korea by force. That brought China into the conflict and prolonged it until 1953, with major casualties. The public turned against the war and elected General Dwight Eisenhower president.


Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson decided in the 1960s that North Vietnam's threat to Southeast Asia was so great that the United States needed to send large American forces to South Vietnam and Thailand to prevent Hanoi, which had Soviet and Chinese support, from conquering the south and fomenting communist revolutions elsewhere in the area.

President Johnson, recent disclosures show, believed in 1965 that putting large U.S. forces into South Vietnam would not win the war against Hanoi, but he calculated that a strong effort would bring a negotiated settlement. It was a bad miscalculation. As the war dragged on into 1968 the public turned against the war. Richard Nixon was elected president after pledging to withdraw American forces in an orderly manner.


President George H. Bush concluded in 1990 that Iraq's sudden invasion of Kuwait threatened the security of Persian Gulf states and the world's oil supply. His NSC, which at that time included Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff., had absorbed important lessons from the failed war in Vietnam: if the United States sends forces into combat, it should have the support of other countries, including NATO allies, it should use overwhelming force, and it should be able to achieve victory within a short time frame without incurring large casualties.

This strategy worked in the Gulf War. Iraq's armies were defeated after six weeks of bombing and a massive allied invasion and Kuwait was liberated. However, President Bush decided not to send the forces to Baghdad and occupy Iraq because he did not have the support of key allies, and he feared that large casualties would turn the public against the war. In this respect, he avoided the mistake made by President Truman during the Korean War.


In 1995 President Bill Clinton was faced with a serious dilemma regarding the Balkans: whether to watch a dreadful civil war in Bosnia engulf its neighbors and endanger the security of Europe, or send a large U.S. military force, along with contingents from other NATO members, to Bosnia and stop the ethnic killing. Clinton's NSC concluded that if force was used, it had to be large enough to accomplish its mission. The strategy was successful, but Clinton then became involved in what his critics called "nation building." Today American troops function as policemen in Bosnia, a job which the current President Bush thinks should not be their role


The use of U.S. military force in 1999 resulted from Clinton's miscalculation that just a few days of bombing in Yugoslavia would convince its tough leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to permit an international force to occupy Kosovo and stop the ethnic warfare. When Milosevic refused to evacuate his own territory, the president had either to back down from his threats, or escalate the war. His dilemma was similar to the one President Johnson faced in Vietnam in 1965. Fortunately for Clinton, Milosevic relented before troops had to be sent.

Strategic overreach

George Bush today faces a tough political challenge from foreign policy hawks in both the Democratic Party and in Republicans ranks: should the United States use its newly demonstrated power to crush other rogue regimes accused of harboring or supporting terrorists? Or, should force be used only as a last resort, after economic and political sanctions and covert operations fail to change those governments' policies?

In the past, after the successful use of American power abroad, policy makers have often overreached by assuming that the next foreign policy crisis could be dealt with by a large show of military power. This occurred during the Korean War when Truman's advisors thought U.S. possession of atomic bombs would deter China and Russia from intervening. It occurred again in 1964-65 because foreign policy hawks believed that John Kennedy's "victory" in the Cuban Missile Crisis would impress Hanoi and Moscow with American determination. These serious miscalculations resulted in prolonged wars and large casualties. In 1999 Bill Clinton thought that stopping ethnic warfare in Kosovo would be no more difficult than it had been in Bosnia. But it took nearly three months of bombing in Yugoslavia and a threat of invasion to achieve that goal..

George Bush is now being pressured to invade Iraq, with or without allies, because of his success in Afghanistan. The costs of doing so are minimized by the hawks who assert that "Saddam will cave" when faced with overwhelming U.S. power. But what if they are wrong?

It is one thing to confront Iraq over accepting the return of U.N. inspectors to check on suspected chemical and biological weapons facilities, where we will have the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and probably Russia. But if the intention is to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein's regime, as we are doing with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Washington will be obliged to fight that war largely alone. It would be the recipe for another Vietnam-type disaster.

File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 08:30 PM EST

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