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



Early in September, Defense Secretary James Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, made an unannounced visit to Kabul to discuss with Afghan leaders a potential peace deal that ends the Taliban insurgency. A few days earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and General Dunford met with Pakistan's leaders to reset U.S. relations and explore ways to end the fighting in Afghanistan.

President Trump reportedly wants to withdraw American forces from that country. During their visit, Generals Mattis and Dunford conferred with the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army General. Austin Miller. He reportedly was selected for the job because he wouldn't oppose a drawdown in U.S. forces. The Financial Times of London headlined a Sept. 9 story: "US pushes for Taliban deal to end Afghan war."

Ending the war after seventeen years is supported by a large majority of Americans. But doing so involves a difficult trade-off between those who want to establish a functioning democracy that can defend that country, and those who have concluded that the costs of U.S. involvement far outweigh that political objective.

Here are five wars and outcomes the U.S. has fought since 1950, one a defeat (Vietnam), one a victory (Kuwait), one a draw (Korea), and two still undecided (Iraq and Afghanistan).


President Truman withdrew American occupation forces in 1949 because Russia did the same earlier. The State Department concluded in early 1950 that Korea, unlike Japan, was not a vital U.S. strategic interest. In June, North Korea, supported by Russia and China, launched an invasion of the south and the president promptly sent U.S. troops back to Korea to support U.N. condemnation of the attack. The war, which cost 34,000 American lives, ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The conflict ended in a draw, and 28,000 U.S. troops remain in South Korea to defend its democratic system and vibrant economy against continuing North Korean threats.


Three presidents, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, viewed Vietnam and Indo-china as strategic prizes in the fight against the Soviet and Chinese Communist threats in Asia. The result was the deployment of half a million U.S. forces between 1961 and 1968 to prevent a takeover of the south by North Vietnam's Communist regime. Unlike Korea, Vietnam was a civil war where Hanoi's nationalist theme won wide support in the south. The Vietnam War, which resulted in 58,000 Americans killed, ended in 1975 with an unambiguous American defeat and withdrawal.


The Gulf War erupted in August 1990 when Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait. The British government was convinced that he planned to extend his control over other oil-rich Persian Gulf states and endanger world oil supplies. As in Korea, the president, George H.W. Bush, viewed Saddam's attack as a clear violation of the UN Charter and responded by organizing an international coalition of nearly half a million troops under U.S. command. In February 1991, coalition forces crushed Iraq's invading army and imposed sanctions on Saddam Hussein's regime. The U.S. lost several hundred troops killed, and the war was over in less than two months. It was a clear win for the United States and its allies.


President George W. Bush, with strong support from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, determined in 2002 that Saddam Hussein had broken the sanctions imposed after the Gulf War and was building weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to threaten his neighbors and endanger oil flows from the Persian Gulf. U.S. forces accomplished their initial objective of ousting Saddam Hussein's regime in March-April 2003. But civil war broke out after US authorities disbanded Saddam's army and police force, and the ensuing insurgency against U.S. forces resulted in 4,400 American deaths and many thousands more wounded. The cost of the war increased steadily.

President Obama decided in 2009 to withdraw the troops; and in 2014 he declared the mission accomplished. Yet, when he left office, some 5,000 advisers and combat forces remained to help Iraq's new government to counter an ISIS insurgency. Today some 5,000 American forces remain. The outcome in Iraq remains undetermined, but its strategic importance has not diminished.


The final chapter on Afghanistan may be approaching, as the Trump administration decides whether the costs of remaining after seventeen years are outweighed by the power vacuum that will result from America's withdrawal. China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and India all have a major stake in that remote and strategically-situated country. Are Congress and the American public willing to accept a possible reemergence of Taliban influence and potential al-Qaeda terrorism? Does America care whether a new war breaks out that involves China, Russia, and Iran? My guess is the United States may be at the point where it says, "Enough is enough."

File last modified on Monday, 1-OCT-2018 08:42 AM EST

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