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



How quickly our view of the world can change in one day. Before Christmas media attention focused on the a growing insurgency in Iraq, rising casualties among Americans and Iraqis, and questions about holding elections later this month.

The day after Christmas, and for the next two weeks, our attention has been riveted on a natural disaster that hit Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and other coastal areas in the Indian Ocean. The human toll, about 150,000 dead and half a million wounded and missing, dwarfed the number of casualties inflicted by Iraq's insurgency.

The 9.0 force earthquake and resulting tidal wave which struck northern Sumatra left nearly 100,000 Indonesians dead and massive devastation. Thousands of European and American tourists, as well as Thais, were also caught when the tidal wave struck Phuket island and other resorts in Southeast Asia. Sweden, with a population of only 9 million, reportedly lost 2,500 dead and missing.

The Bush administration, after its initial period of indecision, responded impressively with both economic and military assistance for the victims. Japan, Australia, Germany, France, and Britain, as well as the United States, responded with large pledges of financial aid.

President Bush also enlisted the assistance of two former presidents, George H. Bush and Bill Clinton, to lead a national effort to generate private donations to augment the $350 million he has allocated from federal emergency funds.

To provide perspective on America's financial contribution to what is viewed as the greatest natural disaster in modern history, consider the following: the Pentagon has announced plans to scale back the number of F/A 22 jet (Raptor) fighters that the Air Force plans to buy because the cost of each plane has soared to more than $200 million dollars. That is roughly 60 percent of the total disaster relief pledged by President Bush. Still, some members of Congress whose districts will be affected by the cutback will fight administration cuts for a fighter plane which was designed to fight the Cold War.

Some suggest that the Asian disaster provides the Bush administration with a unique opportunity to demonstrate the humanitarian side of its foreign policy. Instead of emphasizing military power and fighting wars in Asia and the Middle East, they argue that President Bush can show the idealistic side of America's role in the world and that. Indonesia is an excellent place to start. This country has the world's largest Muslim population and is slowly developing democratic institutions after years of military rule.

In 2005, however, Iraq looms as the most crucial test in American foreign policy, for two reasons: first, there is no easy exit strategy, and second, most Iraqis are opposed to the continued American presence in their country.

James Dobbins, a widely-respected former State Department official with major experience in coping with crises in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Haiti, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs: "The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States can win." ("Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War")

Dobbins argues that because of misdirected U.S. planning for the postwar occupation, "Washington has lost the Iraqi people's confidence and consent, and it is unlikely to win them back." He concludes that the task of rebuilding Iraq must be done by Iraqis, with large help from other countries including its Arab neighbors. This can't be done, he says, so long as U.S. troops remain.

The Bush administration seems unwilling to admit that it grossly underestimated the task of turning Iraq from a brutal dictatorship into a functioning democracy. The president's decision to keep Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense for the time being suggests a reluctance to admit error even after he won reelection in November.

It seems to me the administration has only two realistic choices in 2005 for extricating America from the morass that characterizes its current position in Iraq.

* Begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces soon after Iraq's elections this month ,and complete the process by the end of 2005 or early 2006. This option risks the probability that a new Iraqi government will not be able to establish its legitimacy in that time, especially in insurgency-wracked Sunni areas of central Iraq..

* Reduce U.S. forces to 20-25,000 and locate them in the relatively safe northern Kurdish areas and in the southern Shiite area around Basra. They would be reconstituted as a military aid mission to help the government train and equip its own security forces. The risk is that the Iraqi people will oppose any U.S. military presence.

Either total withdrawal or partial evacuation of American troops risks civil war across Iraq. The majority Shiite population, long oppressed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baathist party, will never permit the Sunnis to reimpose their domination. Nor will the Kurds. The current insurgency could easily escalate into a Shiite-Sunni conflict that would dwarf the current violence.

Either alternative also requires the consent of Iraq's Arab neighbors, and Iran, in order to avoid a wider Middle East war. That means American diplomacy, not U.S. military power, will be sorely needed in 2005. Unfortunately, Colin Powell will not be around to assist in this major effort to restore America's lost international prestige.

File last modified on Monday, 10-JAN-2005 07:03 PM EST

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