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


MAY 2013

Events last week in Washington, Moscow, and Damascus suggest the U.S. is edging closer to limited intervention in Syria's civil war.

Israel's bombing of facilities near Damascus, Secretary of State John Kerry's talks with President Putin in Moscow, and Barack Obama's statement about Syria's possible use of chemical weapons raise new options for U.S. action.

Yet, the question remains: Why should the United States get involved in Syria's civil war? The conventional answer is: America has a responsibility to stop humanitarian outrages which endanger neighboring countries. But the more important question, one not addressed by those urging Obama to use force in Syria, is this: At what cost?

The cost of war in Iraq remains all too clear to most Americans. The care of thousands of wounded veterans is a reminder that the cost of war is measured not only by the multiple billions spent over eight years to build security in major cities. The potential human toll, both military and civilian, must be weighed

When General Eric Shinseki, Army Chief of Staff, told Congress in February 2003 that ousting Saddam Hussein and establishing order in Iraq would require "several hundred thousand troops," he was chastised by the Pentagon's political leadership for exaggerating the force's size. Clearly he was right: there were not enough troops.

For those pressing the president to "show leadership" by arming the rebels and establishing a no-fly zone in parts of Syria, here are five questions for them to answer.

In 2002 and 2003, George Bush exaggerated the WMD threat Saddam Hussein posed to his neighbors in order to persuade Congress that it should support military action. Would Barack Obama exaggerate the threat posed by Syria's civil war to convince a skeptical public and Congress that America should use force to change the regime?

New York Times columnist Bill Keller's recent commentary {May 6} titled, "Syria is not Iraq," cited some of the differences. But his thoughtful piece ends up predicting an outcome in Syria, if America intervenes, that proved illusory in Iraq ten years ago.

He asserts: "We make clear to President Assad that if he does not cease his campaign of terror and enter negotiations on a new order, he will pay a heavy price." Keller predicts that if Assad refuses, "we send missiles against his military installations until he, or more likely those around him, calculate that they should sue for peace."

This is wishful thinking. It's a strategy that George Bush tried with Saddam Hussein in 2002, and it didn't work. His regime didn't collapse and Bush was obliged to send in ground troops to do the job. In that respect, Syria would be another Iraq.

File last modified on Monday, 15-APR-2013 11:16 AM EST

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