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



A week away from Virginia during the Christmas holidays provided a good way to gain perspective on the longer term implications of September 11. It was pleasurable because this vacation centered on a Walt Disney cruise in the Caribbean, with children and grandchildren.

Nobody on this big ship seemed concerned about terrorism. We encountered heightened security, including troops, at Port Canaveral, Florida, before the ship departed and again on its return. Passengers were obliged to step through a metal detector when boarding and to show a photo I.D. But once underway, a mood of sheer joy overtook grownups and some 800 youngsters as all prepared for a memorable ride on the "Disney Magic."

While watching the fun, I wondered how many of passengers had thought about the challenges that lie ahead for American foreign policy.

War without casualties

War without casualties. America now fights its wars from the air with precision guided missiles, minimizing casualties to military personnel. As of last week, only eight American troops were killed during four months of warfare in Afghanistan. Seven of these were in a plane crash that was not attributed to enemy fire. Earlier, one special operations officer of the Central Intelligence Agency was killed in a prisoner-of-war uprising.

In all these cases U.S. media dramatized the deaths in a way that underlined how the Bush administration, like Clinton's earlier, prefers to fight wars: bomb and thus minimize casualties.

Why is this? I suspect a continuing legacy of Vietnam when hundreds of body bags were flown back to the United States every day at the height of that disastrous conflict. Growing casualties in 1967 contributed to the public's disillusionment with the war and led to the question: "Why are we there?" President Johnson began disengaging from the war in 1968.

A similar situation developed in Lebanon in 1983 when 241 Marines were killed in a bombing attack instigated by Arab terrorists. President Reagan withdrew the force within two months. Another case occurred in 1993 when President Clinton was obliged to pull troops out of Somalia after eighteen Army Rangers were killed in a failed attempt to capture a local warlord. In both cases the public demanded to know: "Why are we there?"

Fighting wars with minimal casualties was adopted as policy in Kosovo in 1999. In that conflict U.S. planes flew at 15,000 feet in order to avoid ground fire, resulting in few casualties despite a prolonged bombing campaign.

In Afghanistan, the Pentagon decided early on that it would not use ground troops against Taliban and al Qaeda forces, but rely instead on massive bombing of military targets and on local Afghan militias willing to fight the Taliban. Some American and British special forces were inserted to assist the Afghan fighters, and U.S. Marines were called in to guard airfields around Kandahar until Taliban forces were ousted. The strategy worked, casualties are minimal.

This troubling question must, however, be asked: How can the world's mightiest superpower claim to be the enforcer of stability around the world when it doesn't accept casualties if armed force is used?

NATO as essential partner

The introduction of British and other European peace keepers into Kabul and northern Afghanistan suggests that a division of responsibilities was agreed upon concerning long-term pacification of Afghanistan. After painstaking diplomacy by American, European, and United Nations negotiators, an interim government was established in Kabul that has approved the entry of some 5,000 European troops into northern Afghanistan to provide security in the capital and adjoining areas.

In the south, several thousand Army troops are replacing Marines in the Kandahar region, and soon 750 Canadian combat forces will join them in enforcing security in southern Afghanistan. Meanwhile, U.S. Navy and Air Force bombers continue to blast pockets of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters holding out in the eastern provinces near Pakistan.

Is this division of NATO responsibilities a model for potential future operations, for example in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, or Indonesia? The advantage for Washington is that the task of softening up enemy forces is conducted by air power where it has overwhelming superiority. NATO allies then take major responsibility for rebuilding the country, in reality "nation building."

The problem is that this strategy requires Washington to work closely with key NATO allies -- Britain, Germany, France -- in planning and executing it. What happens if these allies refuse to join Washington in launching new military operations, for example, in Somalia or Iraq? Some pundits argue that the United States should go it alone. But the public and Congress are not likely to endorse military operations against other states without the support of some allies.

Last week it was announced that the Pentagon is sending 650 special forces to the Philippines to help its government crush a Muslim terrorist group in the south that has ties to al Qaeda. In this case Washington is acting alone because of its special relationship with the Philippines. This mission is considered crucial in stopping al Qaeda-linked terrorists who operate in Southeast Asia.

An imperial role?

A few senators and a growing number of media commentators argue that, because Washington has been so successful in Kosovo and Afghanistan in using air power to subdue enemies, it should now pursue a foreign policy that establishes America's superior power position around the world and building a Pax Americana to keep order. Advocates of this American hegemony argue that Washington doesn't need to persuade allies when it decides to intervene. "Other countries will come along when Washington displays bold leadership," they say.

The most dramatic evidence of President Bush's decision to expand security commitments is a New York Times report ("U.S. is building up its military bases in Afghan region: Long-term commitment," Jan. 9) that the Pentagon plans to establish an air base in Kyrgyzstan, an ex-Soviet republic that is strategically situated near the borders of India, Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan. The base will accommodate up 3,000 troops, as well as U.S. aircraft, the report states.

This astonishing extension of American power, and commitment, to one of the most remote parts of the world sends a strong message to all the capitals in the region, including Iran: Don't mess with American and allied peace-enforcing efforts in Afghanistan, especially the stability of Kabul's new government.

A second message is that the Bush administration is deeply concerned about a potential war between India and Pakistan. Washington wants those two nuclear powers to be aware of our interests in that region and it wants China to understand that it should not be tempted to interfere. This is a high-stakes strategic move, which Secretary of State Colin Powell had in mind when he visited that troubled region last week.

It seems clear that George Bush has abandoned his earlier pledge to limit American involvement in peacekeeping missions and that he has adopted the role of "peace enforcer" in Central Asia. This is risky policy because it assumes that air power will provide a deterrent to additional regional conflicts.

Will the public and Congress support this daring extension of U.S. commitments in Central Asia if a new war erupts? If not, we may hear the refrain repeated: "Why are we there?"

File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 07:00 PM EST

Feedback to Author