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



Over the past ten years, after the Soviet Union collapsed and we defeated Saddam Hussein's army in Kuwait, Americans lived in a quasi-dream world in matters of national security. We assumed that as the world's sole superpower, no other country would dare to attack us at home.

No longer. What happened on September 11 significantly changes our lives and will have a major effect on the way we think about our relations with the world.

My first reaction to the horrendous photos of bombings in New York and Washington was: this is like the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. In both cases, the country's initial response was stunned horror, disbelief that such an unprovoked attack would be launched against America.

But the devastating attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington are different in important respects from the bombing at Pearl Harbor.

* This was a major attack on the U.S. mainland, not on a Pacific island territory (Hawaii was not then a state). Also, casualties this time will be much higher than in 1941.

* After the December 1941 attack, we knew who was responsible. And Japan immediately declared war on the United States. This time we are not yet certain who organized the assault. As a result, it will take a little time to determine the origin and decide the retaliation.

* For the first time since the war with Great Britain in 1812, the U.S. government was shut down on September 11. Federal buildings in Washington were closed and workers were sent home. All airports, including Dulles and Reagan airports in Washington were closed. The president, who was then in Florida, was flown to an unspecified military installation as a safety precaution when intelligence sources learned that the White House and Air Force One were targets.

The leaders of Congress were evacuated to a safe area outside Washington and military troops began patrolling streets in the capital. Although President Bush addressed the nation from the White House that night, the reality was that our capital was virtually closed down for the day.

* In 1941 we had no television on which to see the scenes of devastation at Pearl Harbor. Sixty years ago we relied on radio reports that fateful Sunday afternoon and waited until the next day for our newspaper which carried a few photos of the destruction that had been inflicted by Japanese pilots on the Pacific Fleet.

For my World War II generation, the events last week and public's reactions are not entirely new experiences. We witnessed similar scenes sixty years earlier. And for some of us, the carnage from wartime bombings that we saw in British and German cities after World War II now remind us of how eerily similar scenes of the collapsed Twin Towers in New York look.

I was in high school in 1941 and recall that classes were interrupted December 8 to hear President Roosevelt's address to Congress, in which he called December 7 a day that "will live in infamy." Within a few weeks several classmates dropped out of school and enlisted in the army and marines. The slogan "Remember Pearl Harbor" became the rallying call for a nation that felt deeply wounded, and profoundly angry, over this "sneak attack" on our country.

How will the public respond to this terrorist attack on American territory, which the Bush administration is calling a war? Will the country accept major changes, for example, far greater security at airports, public buildings, and sports arenas, that will be required if the country is put on a quasi-war footing?

For Americans born after World War II, this is a new experience. They don't recall seeing rationing of gasoline, food, and clothing in order to wage war. Even though that generation lived with a threat of nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s, the focus of American military actions during the Cold War was in Asia (Korea, Taiwan Strait, Vietnam), Europe where NATO and the Warsaw Pact confronted each other in Berlin and elsewhere, and the Middle East (Libya, Syria, Iraq). For forty years Americans assumed that wars were fought abroad, not here.

The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York should have been a wake-up call. But because the damage and casualties were limited, Americans resumed their complacency about the country being the invincible superpower which nobody would dare to attack.

President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell urgently seek a coalition of allied and friendly countries to a sustained war against terrorist organizations and countries that harbor them. They immediately received approval from NATO that alliance members will give material support to the U.S. military to retaliate against the terrorists.

President Vladimir Putin pledged Russia's full cooperation to Mr. Bush for his pressure on Afghanistan, a neighboring country where Russian troops were heavily engaged in the 1980s.

If Afghanistan's ruthless Taliban government harbors Osama bin-Laden, the likely mastermind of the attacks on the United States, we should expect a major American military operation against that country and the terrorist training camps.

A crucial element in military planning for this operation will be neighboring Pakistan, a Muslim country that has maintained good relations with Afghanistan's Taliban regime. If Pakistan refuses to cooperate in a military operation against Afghanistan, the U.S. military will be deprived of a crucial staging area in the region and could face U.S. sanctions.

Similarly, Syria, Yemen, and Iran--countries that have relations with Washington--are known to harbor terrorist groups linked to the bin-Laden organization. President Bush seemed to suggest that if they fail to cooperate in stopping terrorism against the United States, they will be subjected to economic retaliation. This could include blockading their ports, a drastic action. But if we are now in a wartime mode, peacetime relations will take a back seat.

Although few commentators have raised the issue of Israel's recent policy toward the Palestinians as being part of the equation, it should be noted that ten years ago, when George W. Bush's father was president, Israel was a key element in U.S. diplomacy following the end of the Gulf War. Immediately thereafter, Secretary of State James Baker organized a meeting in Madrid, cosponsored by Moscow. It brought together European and Middle Eastern leaders, including a reluctant Israeli government, and laid the foundation for the Oslo Peace Accords that were negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1993.

Is it possible that Secretary of State Colin Powell, ten years later, will now use the current crisis and U.S. military retaliation as a basis for organizing a new international conference to force a cease-fire in Palestine, and serious negotiations to separate Israelis and Palestinians into separate states?

A successful effort to stop the bloodshed in Palestine is a key part of building the broad coalition that Bush and Powell need in order to crush the terrorist organizations based in the Middle East. It is time for tough diplomacy, as well as military retaliation, to curtail terrorism.

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

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