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



Several years ago former president Gerald Ford had two remarkable interviews with Washington Post writer Bob Woodward that were published after his death. One topic got wide media attention: it cited Mr. Ford as saying he would not have invaded Iraq because America's national security interests were not directly involved.

Another conversation with Woodward was equally revealing of Mr. Ford's thoughts on America's role as a superpower. He said the United States should not have agreed to "inherit the French mess" in Indo-China in 1954, when France withdrew from its colonial possession. "We could have avoided the whole darn Vietnam War," he observed. (Washington Post, December 31)

Like Michigan's Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, Gerald Ford abandoned isolationism after World War II and supported the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Pact to prevent Western Europe from falling under Soviet domination.

Some may think his opposition to interventions in Vietnam and Iraq meant he had reverted to neo-isolationism. But Ford was cautious about committing U.S. troops to combat abroad. He was in tune with the realist views of foreign policy specialists such as James Baker, Lee Hamilton, and Brent Scowcroft, and he opposed both Republican and Democratic voices that dreamed of an American empire.

Looking back on America's foreign policy since World War II, a persuasive case can be made that this country's expansion into a global power resulted from the withdrawal of other great powers from key regions after the war. As Britain, France, and Japan withdrew from their colonial possessions, postwar. presidents, with congressional support, decided that filling these vacuums was in the U.S. national interest.

Palestine and Jordan. Following World War I, the League of Nations gave Great Britain responsibility over this land, abandoned by a defeated Ottoman Empire. In 1945, Britain hoped to retain this role, but by 1947 Jewish refugees from Europe were fighting to create a Jewish state in Palestine. Britain decided that the costs of staying were too high and withdrew. President Truman filled the vacuum by supporting the new state of Israel, and America inherited the British responsibility for security in this key region.

Indo-China. France was determined after World War II to re-impose its colonial rule in this Southeast Asian area, which had been under Japanese occupation since 1941. France fought a brutal war against Ho Chi Minh's Vietnamese insurgents, but in 1954 it concluded the war was unwinnable and withdrew. President Eisenhower reluctantly decided that America should replace the French in order to stop the southward spread of Asian communism, but he was obliged to accept Ho Chi Minh's rule in North Vietnam. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson later inherited responsibility for this area.

Korea. The United States and the Soviet Union filled a power vacuum there in 1945 following Japan's surrender. Although the Truman administration did not view Korea as a vital security interest, it nevertheless took on responsibility there in 1950 when North Korean forces, armed with Soviet equipment, invaded the south in a drive to impose Communist rule. American troops have stayed in Korea since that time.

Afghanistan. Great Britain had a major interest in Afghanistan before World War II, when London exercised colonial rule in India. After Britain granted India and Pakistan independence in 1948, it continued to support the Afghan monarchy until its overthrow in the 1970s. When Soviet forces invaded in 1978, President Carter began aiding Afghani resistance forces, a program expanded by President Reagan. After Moscow withdrew its troops ten years later, a new power vacuum opened and the Taliban took over. It gave Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda a base of operations and caused President Bush to invade and take on responsibility for the country after the 9-11 attacks on the United States.

Iraq and Iran. Before the Second World War Britain held a major influence in Iraq and Iran, which continued in the postwar period. In 1955 London established with U.S. support the Baghdad Pact, a security arrangement that included Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. The Shah of Iran, the key to this partnership, worked closely with Britain and America for twenty years to maintain peace in the Persian Gulf. But when his regime was overthrown by revolution in 1979, the current Islamic Republic was established. Within months it invaded the American embassy and imprisoned fifty-two of its personnel for over a year.

In 1991 America expanded its military power in the Persian Gulf when it forced Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait. Twelve years later, George Bush invaded Iraq to establish the United States as the dominant power in the oil-rich Gulf and deny that role to Iran's Islamic regime, which aspires to nuclear power status in the area.

Mr. Bush's new plan to reinforce U.S. military forces in Iraq is a calculated gamble that Iraq's fractious leadership will overcome their quarrels and compromise on a plan to build a united, democratic country. If they fail, Iraq will splinter and U.S. troops will be powerless to prevent the ensuing chaos.

The late Gerald Ford would question whether "success" in Iraq is achievable, given the mounting costs. George Bush has less than two years to prove him wrong.

File last modified on Sunday, 22-JAN-2007 07:03 PM EST

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