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

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Donald Nuechterlein

WARS ARE COSTLY, WHEREVER THEY ARE FOUGHT

OCTOBER 2004

A visit last month to the beaches in Normandy, France, sixty years after U.S., British, and Canadian troops landed there in the massive D-Day assault on Hitler's European empire, was a grim reminder for me of the price of victory in World War II.

The heroism of those who fought at Omaha, Utah, and other Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, is well depicted in the movies "The Longest Day" and "Saving Private Ryan" and is viscerally felt at the beautiful American cemetery located near the city of Caen. After seeing "Saving Private Ryan" several years ago, I asked Colonel Carroll Smith of Charlottesville, who fought in the assault on Omaha Beach, whether the first fifteen minutes of the film were reasonably accurate. "All except the height of the steel barriers," he said.

Looking at the height of that machine-gun infested hill behind the beach, I marveled that any of Smith's company of troops had survived.

We also visited several famous battlefields from the First World War where thousands of American soldiers and Marines fought and died in a valiant effort in 1918 to turn the tide of war against Imperial Germany. The battlefield at Belleau Wood, for example, was a heroic stand by U.S. Marines to stop a German offensive that might have broken through the Allied lines and opened their way to Paris. Similarly, at Chateau Thierry, French and American troops launched a costly offensive that forced the Germans a few months later to ask for an armistice leading to an end of that disastrous war.

Americans today are faced with a major decision about whether to "stay the course" in Iraq, or pull out with the least cost to our troops and damage to U.S. credibility. George Bush says we must see the job through because a democratic Iraq is the key to all our other interests in the Middle East, including access to Persian Gulf oil. John Kerry says that the cost of the war and occupation of Iraq is too high, that the Bush administration exaggerated the danger we faced from Saddam Hussein, and that he would enlist the help of our allies in ending the occupation.

There are valid arguments on both sides and some spurious ones.

Bush is right that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous dictator who sought to acquire nuclear weapons and undercut American influence in the Arab world, especially access to its oil. He also maintains that a democratic Iraq will stimulate Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Iran to open up their authoritarian systems to representative government. He is being optimistic, however, if he believes that this process will bear real results any time soon.

Kerry is right to claim that the costs of invasion and occupation of Iraq are far greater than the Pentagon in 2002 led Congress and the public to believe. More than one thousand Americans dead and nearly 8,000 wounded is already too high a price for this war, in the opinion of many Americans. Many also think the financial cost, some $120 billion and rising (Kerry's figure is $200 billion) is more than the United States should pay for Bush's failed policy.

But Kerry is wrong to claim, as he did in his TV debate with Bush on September 30, that he can persuade America's allies to help out with financing Iraq's reconstruction and assist its government to restore security. Most European allies, including France and Germany, are not willing to spend significant amounts of money on Iraq no matter who is president, nor are they prepared to give major assistance to train Iraq's new police and military forces.

Similarly, none of the Arab countries is willing to send assistance, as they did in the Gulf War in 1991, until Washington exerts real pressure on Israel to stop enlarging settlements in the West Bank at the expense of Palestinians and until it withdraws fully from the Gaza area and most of the West Bank. Would President Bush or a President Kerry be willing to do that in order to obtain help from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states?

The reality of America's position in Iraq today is that there is no easy way out, unless we are willing to say: "We don't have any vital interests in the Middle East worth fighting for." In that case, Americans had better get used to a new quality of life that involves far more expensive oil and a consequent steep rise in the cost of living.

John Kerry says that the war in Iraq was a diversion from the war on terrorism and a step backward from our responsibilities in Afghanistan. Yet, he says, he would start pulling troops out of Iraq in six months and have them all out in four years. George Bush puts no time limit on the U.S. troop presence, although Donald Rumsfeld says some could be withdraw next year..

Kerry, it seems to me, is closer to Howard Dean in his thinking about extricating our troops from a bad situation than he is to George Bush‘s view that we have vital interests in Iraq and cannot leave quickly without incurring serious consequences. The country paid a heavy price in the 1970s for a humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam, and as the world's only superpower we need to avoid a similar potential debacle this time.

The November 2 election will not be decided solely on foreign policy issues, but the September 30 presidential debate clarifies the choice voters have about how the two men will deal with Iraq, North Korea, and the United Nations. Possibly the sharpest divergence in foreign policy between Bush and Kerry is how much weight the president should give to the views of other governments when deciding U.S. national security policy. The choice is clearer than before.

File last modified on Thursday, 12-AUG-2004 09:00 PM EST

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