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



As the 2004 primary season opens in Iowa this month, only the Democrats have a contest for a party nominee in the November election. Most of the media attention during the next two months will be focused on Democratic candidates, not the Republicans' choice, George Bush.

To what extent will foreign policy issues be debated this year? And should the Democrats' choice to challenge George Bush have foreign policy experience?

Howard Dean, the Democratic front-runner in the primaries, is being criticized for his seemingly bizarre statements on foreign policy and his fierce opposition to the war in Iraq. One critic, retired General Wesley Clark, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" recently that he would not be vice president with Dean because he lacks foreign policy experience.

"I just don't believe," Clark said, "that at this time in American history, the Democratic Party can field candidates who can only represent the education, health, job and compassionate sides of the party.We have to deal with the challenges facing America at home and the challenges facing America abroad." [Washington Post, Jan. 5, 2004, p. A6: "Clark Rules Out Joining Dean Ticket"]

General Clark spent his entire career in the army dealing with national security issues and, as NATO commander in the 1990s, handling diplomatic relations with the leaders of NATO countries regarding the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. John Kerry, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, became a senator from Massachusetts and devoted much of his time to national security and foreign policy issues. Kerry too argues that Dean lacks foreign policy qualifications to be president.

Looking back over seventy years, including America's entry into World War II and the forty years of Cold War, it can reasonably be concluded that most American presidents were not experienced in foreign affairs when they came to office.

Franklin Roosevelt, for example, spent his political career in New York except for a short stint in Washington as assistant secretary of the Navy in World War I. When he became president in 1933, America had an economic crisis at home, not a threat from abroad. That came when Europe was engulfed in war and America debated whether its security was endangered.

Harry Truman made his reputation in the U.S. Senate on domestic, not foreign affairs. But he had served in World War 1 as an artillery officer, an experience that gave him a very personal exposure to international relations. When he became president in 1945 Truman quickly concluded that the Soviet Union intended to communize Western Europe and that only the United States could prevent what he believed would be a disaster for America 's well-being.

Of all postwar presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon, were the best prepared to deal with foreign policy when each became president. Eisenhower was the commander who led allied forces against Nazi Germany during World War II, and Nixon had spent his whole career as senator, vice president, and international consultant, working on international issues.

John Kennedy was a World War II veteran and a senator when he became president, but he was not well-prepared in foreign policy when he entered the White House in 1961. He made serious foreign policy mistakes during his first six months in office, but he learned how to deal with the tough Soviet leadership and before he died had demonstrated a firm grasp of foreign and national security policy.

Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter were probably the least prepared to deal with the outside world when they became president and neither was successful in foreign policy, although. Carter received much credit for the 1979 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Johnson had spent his whole career in Congress specializing on domestic policy. Critics said that he understood little about international relations and cared even less when he launched the ill-fated Vietnam War in 1965. He left office a deeply disappointed man.

Neither Ronald Reagan nor Bill Clinton was well prepared in foreign policy, although Clinton had studied for two years in Great Britain. Both had strong foreign policy teams, however, which helped guide them through the first year in office. Both of them were successful in building good relations abroad, and Reagan presided over the end of the Cold War..

In 1989 George H. Bush was well prepared to deal with the world because he had been U.S. ambassador to China, U. S. Representatives to the United Nations, CIA director, and served for eight years as vice president under Ronald Reagan. However, his son, George W. Bush, was not well-versed in foreign policy when he took office in 2001. But he assembled an impressive team of seasoned veterans for his national security team, among them Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell.

As a result of the 9-11 attacks, future presidents must have more knowledge and experience than previously in dealing with an array of national security issues. How does a president deal with allies that no longer so readily accept Washington's policy preferences? How does he deal with countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines that don't want U.S. military help in dealing with local terrorist organizations? And how does he handle relations with generally friendly Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt that don't support America's occupation of Iraq and also criticize it for not being an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Howard Dean's appeal to Democratic voters results from his strong stand against the Iraq war and his frontal assault on George Bush's record as president. The other principal candidates supported the war when Congress voted for it in 2002. And although Richard Gephardt and John Edwards have criticized the Bush administration's free trade policies for causing massive losses in manufacturing jobs, the jobs issue does not stir the anti-Bush passions of Democratic stalwarts the way Dean's anti-war rhetoric does.

A new president learns that in his first year he will be severely tested by some countries and terrorist organizations which believe that if they can cause the great superpower to act imprudently, they will gain support abroad from those who resent America's world hegemony. A new president who is experienced in international relations is likely to make fewer mistakes during his early tenure than one who is not.

Many political observers think George Bush is probably unbeatable this year. They point to his success in shepherding Afghanistan and Iraq toward democratic government, the expanding economy, rising stock markets, and Congress's approval of his popular education reform and prescription drug benefit

But Republican strategists think it will be a very close election, as in 2000. A bruising campaign focusing on the Iraq war could leave the country more divided, which is not a recipe for future non-partisanship in foreign policy.

File last modified on Thursday, 12-AUG-2004 09:00 PM EST

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