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



New presidents are confronted with crises and major tests abroad in their first year. George W. Bush faced his after the 9-11 attacks in 2001. Today Joe Biden seems overwhelmed by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Other presidents

In 1945, Harry Truman had to decide whether to use the atom bomb against Japan, or risk the lives of half a million troops invading its home islands. He decided to use atom bombs on two Japanese cities and the war quickly ended. In 1953 Dwight Eisenhower faced a stalemated war in Korea with mounting US casualties. He threatened China with atomic weapons and the fighting soon ended in a cease-fire.

John Kennedy tried in early 1961 to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba by using a CIA-trained Cuban invasion force. This resulted in total disaster at the Bay of Pigs, and Kennedy accepted full responsibility. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson inherited a Communist insurgency in South Vietnam. He decided to send half a million forces to Vietnam, but by 1968 this met with failure and he decided not to seek reelection.

Richard Nixon in 1969 had the daunting task of withdrawing American troops from Vietnam without a serious loss of US credibility abroad. The troops were out by 1973, but his successor, Gerald Ford, was pressured by Congress to evacuate other Americans in a humiliating manner as North Vietnamese troops swept into Saigon.

Jimmy Carter was luckier. In 1977 he concluded a peace treaty with Panama that turned over ownership of the Panama Canal. Carter's crisis came two years later over his handling of the Iran hostage crisis.

Ronald Reagan was less fortunate in his first year. After surviving an assassination attack in early 1981, he confronted a newly belligerent Soviet Union with military moves in Europe. That brought in new Soviet leadership and the Cold War eventually ended in 1990.

George H.W. Bush was a second lucky president After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he brokered a deal with new Soviet leaders that permitted a reunited Germany to remain in NATO. Bill Clinton was also lucky: By 1993, America emerged as the sole superpower. He faltered at first by indecision about a new dictatorship in Haiti, but in 1994 sent troops to restore the ousted president.

George W. Bush was severely tested in his first year by the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington by al-Qaeda terrorists. The country was stunned and demanded military action against Afghanistan for harboring the attackers. Three successor presidents, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden were tested by the Afghanistan issue in their first year in office and decided the United States had no vital interest that required American troops.

Biden's crisis

Unlike George W. Bush, who was blindsided by the 9-11 attacks twenty years ago, Joe Biden had seven months to prepare for the US troop withdrawal. Most Americans agreed it was time to leave Afghanistan but they expected it to be an orderly withdrawal, not the chaotic debacle that has unfolded there.

One can argue, as the president does, that all withdrawals are messy, but he was willing to pay a price to extricate America from a potential quagmire. The media and most commentators didn't buy it: they castigated him for bungling the withdrawal and being naïve about rapid Taliban advances on the ground.

Impact foreign policy

Biden's lack of credibility with allies, in Europe and Asia harms his claim that "America is back" as leader of the free world. The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 21) called the U.S. a "Pitiful Helpless Giant in Afghanistan." And the Washington Post observed, "The debacle in Afghanistan is the worst kind: Avoidable." (Aug. 17)

In Europe the damage to America's reputation is severe. A top British government leader, Tom Hugendhat, called it "the biggest foreign policy disaster since the 1956 Suez crisis," adding that Britain needs to "think again about how we handle friends and how we defend our interests." In Germany, Armin Laschet, likely to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor, called the Afghanistan withdrawal "the biggest debacle that NATO had ever seen."

In Japan, foreign policy expert, Prof. Tetsuo Kotani, asserted that "Afghanistan will have long-term profound implications for Japan's perception of the reliability and credibility of the United States."

What have we learned from the Afghanistan fiasco? Here are two conclusions I draw: First, don't use US military forces to engage in nation- building: it's not their job, and it costs enormous amounts of money. Second, America may not recover from its loss of credibility among allies and friends around the world. That leaves the door open for Russia, China, Iran, and potentially Pakistan to fill the power vacuum.

Not a hopeful outcome of this twenty-year war.

File last modified on Friday, 27-AUG-2021 11:25 AM EST

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