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



Three recent statements by three prominent U.S. officials sum up the debate on where the country stands regarding launching war on Iraq.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, representing the hard-line view of civilian leaders in the Pentagon, said in a speech to a Marine Corps audience at Pendleton, California, on August 27:

"It's less important to have unanimity than it is to be making the right decisions and doing the right thing, even though at the outset it may seem lonesome."

Rumsfeld was referring to a refusal by our European allies, except for Britain, to endorse Vice President Cheney's strong view that the United States has an obligation to use whatever means are necessary to replace Saddam Hussein's regime before it acquires nuclear weapons. The defense secretary suggests that the United States should go it alone on attacking Iraq if the European and friendly Arab countries don't agree.

Left unsaid by Rumsfeld, and by Cheney a day earlier, was how the Pentagon planned to launch an invasion on Iraq if its neighboring Arab states don't provide bases and overfly rights, as they did in the 1991 Gulf War.

A second statement came from Senator John Warner of Virginia, the leading Republican on the Armed Services Committee which has oversight of the Pentagon's budget and military force structure. He stated in a letter to committee Chairman Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, that Rumsfeld should be called to testify and explain why he thinks there is an urgent need for military action against Iraq. Warner cited "an information gap" between what many senators understand the threat to be and what Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials claim that it is.

This leading Republican senator was, in effect, telling the White House that it needed to make a strong case to Congress, including the Armed Services Committee, that war is necessary in order to oust Saddam Hussein's regime and to spell out what military forces and equipment will be necessary to carry out the mission.

A third contribution to the Iraq debate came from retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni. Until his retirement last year, Zinni was the top U.S. commander for the Middle East and South Asia, the job now held by General Tommy Franks who oversees the war in Afghanistan. Earlier this year General Zinni, an expert on the Middle East, was asked by Secretary of State Colin Powell to head a mediation mission to Israel to help defuse a dangerous conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that was escalating in intensity. Despite his efforts, Zinni was unable to prevent renewed violence and bloodshed..


Speaking to the Economic Club of Florida in Tallahassee August 27, the General Zinni directed these cogent words for those who are urging war:

"It's pretty interesting that all the generals see it the same way and all the others who have never fired a shot and are hot to go to war, see it another."

He reflected statements made by General Brent Scowcroft and General Norman Schwartzkopf, both of whom were involved in the 1991 Gulf War and who cautioned the new Bush administration against launching a new war against Iraq. General Wesley Clark, the recently retired commander of NATO forces in Europe, told a television interviewer that he supported that view. Most observers in Washington think Secretary of State Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also shares that assessment.

Zinni also said that in his judgment it was far better for the United States to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and to pursue the al Qaida terrorist network, before starting a new Middle East war.

President Bush claims he has not yet made up his mind. This may be a tactical position in order to promote a heated debate here and abroad before he announces a decision. Many expect him to lay out his policy on Iraq in an address to the U.N. General Assembly on September 12. Most pundits think that Vice President Dick Cheney spoke with the president's concurrence when he told s Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting in Nashville on August 26 that the danger is so great that the United States should oust Saddam Hussein before he acquires nuclear weapons.

Senator Warner's demand that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld come before his committee and explain the Pentagon's planning is a sign that the constitutional checks and balances system is beginning to work with regard to Congress's role in matters of war and peace.


However, some hardliners claim that the president does not need congressional approval to launch war on Iraq. Like many of his colleagues, Warner recalls that when President Johnson took the country to war against North Vietnam in 1965 he decided that he did not need congressional authorization to do so. Eight years later Congress passed the War Powers Act to prevent a president from launching a large war without its approval. Last week the president settled the issue by telling congressional leaders that he would seek a congressional resolution of support on his Iraq policy.

Still, thoughtful people should be troubled about defense secretary Rumsfeld's assertion that it is less important to have allies than "to be making the right decisions and doing the right thing." Who in our democratic system of government should decide that going to war is the "right decision?" The president alone? The president and Congress together? And how important are allies, especially when the danger is far from North America and involves large risks?

As we learned in Vietnam forty years ago, decision-making on matters involving large, costly wars should not be left exclusively to the president and to his advisers, all of whom are appointed by him, not elected. Unless congressional leaders, such as Senators Warner, Hagel, Biden, and Lugar are given good answers to their legitimate concerns about the rush to war, the path to an imperial presidency will be unchecked


A particularly disturbing aspect of Anthony Zinni's comments, specifically that senior American military men with combat experience are skeptical about starting war with Iraq, is the nature of the all-volunteer force as a factor influencing the decision-making. General Zinni's blunt assertion that a gap exists between those who experienced war first hand and those who did not is a sobering commentary on U.S. civil-military relationships.

Does the availability of a highly trained, well-paid, strongly-motivated professional military make it easier for a president and his National Security Council to contemplate sending troops into combat than it was when the country had conscription and young men were obligated to serve for several years in the military?

Some civilian experts in Washington--at the Pentagon, numerous think-tanks, and the media--consider that the U.S. military is simply a police force that should be sent just anywhere to put down troublemakers and persuade reluctant countries to bend to Washington's will. That may be an exaggeration, but our highly effective all-volunteer military opens the possibility that sending the force to war is becoming the normal way Washington conducts foreign policy, instead of the exception. The potential risks bear scrutiny.

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

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