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



Among the striking changes that Americans find in their outlook after the disasters of September 11 is the reality that our foreign policy now requires changed priorities in order that this country may cope with a radically altered international environment.

Two of these, our emphasis on human rights and our sudden interest in Islam, reflect significant changes in the way the Bush administration assesses the world after destruction of the Trade Towers in New York and massive damage to the Pentagon near Washington.

Human rights

Our earlier assumption that human rights must be a guiding principle in foreign policy no longer seems appropriate. Since the 1970s every president paid at least lip service to the idea that America stands for more than economic and military power in the world, that democracy and individual rights are an important part of the image we want to project abroad.

President Jimmy Carter elevated human rights to high principle in his foreign policy and created the position "assistant secretary for human rights affairs" in the State Department. Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush continued this theme, but they preferred to speak privately with foreign leaders about human rights issues instead of engaging in public criticism of their governments. Bill Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, made human rights a major part of their effort to persuade foreign leaders to accept U.S. advice in these matters.

An illustration of the difference between the Clinton-Albright policy and the Bush-Powell approach to human rights is Russia's policy in Chechnya. Clinton and Albright never failed to lecture Boris Yeltsin and his government about Russia's violation of human rights in the treatment of Chechnya, whose leaders used guerrilla warfare against Moscow in order to gain independence.

Even before September 11 George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell soft- peddled the Chechnya issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They preferred to focus on negotiating a compromise to amend the 1972 ABM treaty which prohibits building a strategic defense shield around the United States. Since September 11, the Chechnya issue has all but disappeared in Bush's discussions with Putin. Why?

The United States now desperately needs Russia's diplomatic help in order to prosecute its war in Afghanistan. Putin's quick offer of support to Bush, permitting U.S. forces to transit Russian territory and help in arranging for special forces to operate in Uzbekistan, was indispensable in bringing military force to bear in northern Afghanistan. Russian intelligence on that country, which it occupied during the 1980s, has proved of great value to U.S. forces there. A second case illustrating the new view of human rights is Pakistan, a crucial country in Washington's calculations on whether Osama bin Laden's terrorist headquarters will be crushed or whether he retains a sanctuary in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Two years ago General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's virtual dictator, led his army in a coup against the country's corrupt civilian leadership. The Clinton administration imposed tough sanctions on Pakistan because of his overthrow of democracy and also the previous government's decision to produce nuclear weapons. Pakistan's economy has languished.

After September 11 Musharraf abandoned Pakistan's previous support of Afghanistan's Taliban government and gave full backing to the Bush administration's policy of confrontation with the Taliban for harboring bin Laden. Last week President Bush pledged $1 billion in aid to Pakistan, and there is no mention of human rights.

China is another example. To obtain Beijing's support in the U.N. for war against the al Qaeda terrorist network, Washington has muted criticism of Beijing's treatment of its dissidents.

Growing interest in Islam

Two months ago Americans suddenly realized that millions of Muslims, in countries from Morocco on the Atlantic to Indonesia on the Pacific, hate the United States and accept the propaganda put out by Osama bin Laden and his terrorist supporters. TV anchors interviewed American experts on the Middle East for answers. Universities reported big increases in enrollment in classes on Islam. Magazine covers posed the question: "Why do they hate us?"

What we're learning is, there is no simple answer. Militant Arabs want us to believe that bin Laden's appeal stems from the brutal Israeli treatment of Palestinians, as shown on television. Some scholars on the Middle East claim that America's wealth and power are resented by Muslims who see little chance of economic improvement in their countries while their corrupt governments are bolstered by the presence of American troops, as in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Others cite a yearning by the Muslim masses, particularly in Arab states, to recapture a glorious historical past when Islam was a driving force in world affairs--in science, culture, philosophy.

I recently finished reading a fascinating new book about the Third Crusade in the late 12th century, entitled "Warriors of God." It describes a gigantic struggle between European armies, led by Richard the Lion Heart of England, and a united Arab force commanded by Saladin, a Muslim hero who fought the Europeans ("infidels") to a draw and saved Jerusalem for Islam. Reading this account of the Crusaders' epic struggle for control of the Holy Land (which Saladin successfully defended) provides important clues to understanding why today's Muslims blame the United States' for Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem.

Before September 11, Secretary of State Colin Powell found it politically risky for the Bush administration to propose a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ran counter to the hard-line views of Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon. That has changed.

Two weeks ago President Bush said for the first time that the United States envisaged two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine, living within secure borders. Only six months ago Powell was roundly criticized, here and in Israel, for suggesting this solution to the conflict. The real problem, however, remains the division of Jerusalem. International pressure will be required to get an equitable solution to that problem, and the Bush-Putin meetings last week may provide a plan.

In sum, America's priorities in the Middle East are changing because it cannot ignore the strong views on the Israeli-Palestinian issue held by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan whose support Washington needs in order to prosecute its mounting struggle against the al Qaeda worldwide network

The outlook

America's espousal of human rights will continue, but this will have a lower priority in U.S. policy than building the international alliance to combat terrorism. During World War II President Roosevelt made an alliance with Josef Stalin, one of the worst villains of the 20th century, in order to defeat Nazi Germany. During the Cold War presidents from Truman to Reagan also made temporary arrangements with dictators in order to win that struggle.

Winning the current war and bringing peace to Israel and Palestine will give America more political clout to advance the cause of democracy in the Muslim world. Turkey's experience could serve as a model. But first the struggle against bin Laden's al Qaeda henchmen must be won Last week's disintegration of the Taliban's hold on power on Afghanistan is a good start.

File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 08:30 PM EST

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