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



Barack Obama joins other presidents, from Woodrow Wilson in 1917 to George W. Bush in 2003, who sought public and congressional support for armed interventions abroad. President Wilson appeared before Congress four times in ten weeks to press his case that America could not remain neutral while Britain and France suffered huge losses on the western front and Russian armies faced disaster in the east against the forces of Imperial Germany. Wilson argued that America's vital national interests were at stake in Europe and would be seriously jeopardized if Germany dominated the entire continent. A reluctant Congress declared war in April, 1917.

In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt concluded that Nazi Germany posed a dangerous threat to the security of Europe. But, despite his efforts to warn the country, and using the navy in 1941 to escort merchant ships carrying arms to Britain, the president was unable to persuade the country and Congress to enter the war because of the strong isolationist mood in the country. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 completely changed public opinion, and Congress declared war a few days later.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush warned the country about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and warned of the consequences for security in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. After organizing a broad coalition of countries to join in war against Saddam Hussein's forces, the president obtained a large congressional majority in favor of war. He also gained approval from the U.N. Security Council. The large coalition force, numbering nearly half a million, mostly U.S. troops, defeated Iraq's forces in just three weeks.

Truman and Johnson in Korea and Vietnam

Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson took a different approach to war in Korea and Vietnam. In June 1950, after North Korea invaded South Korea and threatened the security of Northeast Asia, Truman ordered U.S. troops to Korea without asking Congress for a declaration of war. He based his decision on the U.N. Security Council's resolution that North Korea's attack was a threat to peace. It also approved a U.N. force to join the U.S. war effort. The war lasted three years and ended in the reestablishment of a demarcation border that existed in 1950. The war ended ia draw, and the U.S. had lost 36,000 dead and far more wounded.

In Vietnam, President Johnson used the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution, passed by Congress to serve as a deterrent to Hanoi, as his authority to deploy 200,000 combat forces to South Vietnam in 1965 to prevent a Communist victory. By early 1968, that force had grown to over 500,000, with no end in sight. Because of growing public and congressional opposition, the president decided to deescalate the fighting, but left it to his successor, Richard Nixon, to oversee a full withdrawal of forces in 1973. By then the number of battle deaths had risen to 56,000. In 1975 North Vietnam's army occupied the entire country and inflicted on America a humiliating defeat, its first in a major war.

In September 2001, George W. Bush asked Congress for authority to wage war on Afghanistan to expel Al-Qaeda terrorists and oust its Taliban regime which harbored them. Congress quickly gave the president authority to act, because the country had been severely  shocked by the 9-11 attacks in New York and Washington. A year later, however, the president took months attempting to persuade the public and Congress to support an invasion of Iraq, to force its compliance with numerous U.N. resolutions to disarm. Although a divided Congress approved the invasion and the ouster of Saddam

Hussein's regime, George Bush failed to win support from the UN Security Council, and key U.S. allies, notably France, Germany, and Canada, refused to support the invasion. The Iraq war and its aftermath resulted in widespread opposition at home.

Obama's course reversal

During nearly six years as president, Barack Obama committed his administration to withdrawal from two costly wars, to a focus on domestic priorities, and the avoidance of new interventions abroad. Last summer, he concluded that the United States could no longer stand aloof from the mounting danger to the Middle East security from ISIS, a brutal Islamic terrorist organization whose fighters seized control of northern and western Iraq and large parts of Syria. The gruesome photos of ISIS fighters beheading western journalists aroused public outrage in Europe and America and led Obama to unleash U.S. airpower on ISIS forces in both Iraq and Syria.

The president's earlier reluctance to get America involved in another Middle East war resemble Woodrow Wilson's reluctance to enter the war in Europe. In each case, the president came to office desiring to focus on domestic affairs. But in his second term, each man changed course when confronted with a dangerous series of events abroad.

A crucial question is whether Barack Obama will ask Congress for a resolution authorizing him to use military forces in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS and promote stability in the Middle East. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia urges the president, whom he supports, to come to Congress and make his case for war Iraq and Syria and ask for a vote of support. Mr. Kaine believes the president does not have authority under a 2001 congressional resolution to wage a war in the Middle East. (The New York Times, "An Obama Ally Parts With Him on War Powers," October 6)

Senator Kaine's wise counsel deserves wide congressional support.

File last modified on Wednesday, 15-OCT-2014 10:50 AM EST

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