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



President Obama pledged recently to withdraw combat forces from Iraq in the next sixteen months and send more troops to Afghanistan to counter a resurgent Taliban. Stabilizing Afghanistan will be a more complex task for him than Iraq was for George Bush.

Since 1945 the United States has fought four costly wars, and none of them led to a complete victory. In Korea, the war ended in a draw after nearly three years of huge American casualties, and the country divided along roughly the same border as before. The Vietnam war, launched in 1965, was even costlier. It ended in defeat when North Vietnam's army seized control of the south, after Congress cut off funding for the war.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, two other post-World II conflicts, the outlook is mixed. Iraq is largely stabilized after a surge in U.S. forces in 2007 brought security to its cities and recent elections strengthened the central government. The situation in Afghanistan is dangerous, however, and the central government has little influence.. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has never had a government that exercised central control of the country.

In each of these wars, the president had to make a difficult choice: agree to an unsatisfactory outcome (Korea), accept a stalemate and eventual defeat (Vietnam), persevere to achieve success (Iraq), and, until now, neglect the enemy's resurgence (Afghanistan).

If we examine the choices made by Richard Nixon on Vietnam and by George W. Bush on Iraq, it may help us understand the alternatives Barack Obama faces in dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan.

A noted historian, Margaret MacMillan, authored an excellent book two years ago titled, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World. She recounts how Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, secretly planned a presidential trip to China in 1972 to end a twenty-three year freeze on U.S. relations with Communist China. Here is the situation she says Nixon faced when he entered the White House in 1969:

"The Soviet Union and its allies had watched with pleasure as American power failed to crush North Vietnam. American allies had watched uneasily as their superpower showed its weakness. Their publics had increasingly turned sour on the United States; in Canada and western Europe, huge demonstrations demanded that the United States get out of Vietnam. Much of the criticism, and not just from the left, was disturbingly anti-American. The United States was portrayed as an international bully."

It sounds similar to the world's reaction to the U.S. war in Iraq.

Nixon believed that opening relations with China would persuade both Beijing and Moscow to support a negotiated settlement in Vietnam, one that preserved a viable state in South Vietnam. Although he succeeded in withdrawing American ground troops in 1973, Nixon's effort failed when North Vietnam invaded and took control of South Vietnam in 1975. This forced a humiliating evacuation of all Americans from Saigon.

George Bush faced a difficult choice on Iraq in 2007: withdraw U.S. troops, as domestic and international opinion was demanding, or send 30,000 more troops in an effort to reverse a dangerous security trend, one that threatened to become a full-scale civil war. Bush chose a surge, and it eventually brought tranquility to nearly all of Iraq.

What are Barack Obama's options in Afghanistan and Iraq?

His commanders in Afghanistan have asked for 30,000 additional troops to fight the Taliban and strengthen the Kabul government. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said two weeks ago that he is recommending l2,000 additional troops be sent now, with the possibility of more later this year. However, none of our NATO allies, with the exception of Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands, is willing to provide combat troops.

Barack Obama will need to decide soon whether to deploy enough new forces to prevent Taliban insurgents from seizing control of larger parts of the country, or seek a negotiated settlement that gives more power to local warlords and even Taliban leaders not allied with Al Qaeda. Secretary Gates says he foresees a long struggle that may not result in a conclusive end to the war.

The president's choice in Iraq is much easier. He can now withdraw combat forces in sixteen to eighteen months and be reasonably confident that Iraq's government, which gained strength in recent provincial elections, will take over responsibility for policing the entire country. Washington's role will be providing logistic, intelligence, and training support.

If things go well there, we will see that country's successful transition to a stable, democratic government. And part of the credit will go to George Bush for refusing to accept defeat in Iraq.

File last modified on Sunday, 11-JAN-2009 5:24 PM EST

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