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



(This presentation was made to the annual meeting of D.A.R. chapters in Central Virginia on November 4, 2004, at the Farmington Country Club)

It is a real pleasure to meet with members of the D.A.R. today to talk about crucial national security issues that will affect our country in 2005 and beyond. I'm glad to see some male friends as well, including Dr. Stocker, Admiral Bass, and Reverend Minnick.

When I prepared these remarks a few days ago, it was not clear if we would know today who the next president will be. Fortunately for the country, we will not have another 2000-type period of indecision regarding this election: George Bush won not just the electoral vote but also a resounding popular vote margin well. So, the question today is what are the crucial foreign policy issues that President Bush will face in 2005. I suggest four major issues that may be called "vital national interests," those that could involve the country in war. They are:

  1. Threats to political stability in the Persian Gulf region
  2. Islamic extremism, terrorism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  3. Nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue states and terrorists
  4. Taiwan's push for independence and China's response

Other less urgent issues that also require serious presidential attention are: the divergence of views between the United States and Europe over international security policy and trade; tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir; Venezuela's anti-American policies in Latin America. genocide in Sudan; and growing authoritarianism in Russia. With our limited time, we'll discuss the four issues that could result in war.

Stability in the Persian Gulf.

There are several reasons why this area is of crucial importance to the United States: It has the world's largest reserves of crude oil and the cheapest means of extracting it for sale abroad. Yet, the area has some of the world's most authoritarian, non-democratic governments, including our friends Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait. These governments are vulnerable to the public appeal of Osama bin-Laden who wants to unite the Arab world into a powerful anti-western bloc in international politics.

Iraq is the current battleground in the Persian Gulf and, in my view, is crucial to U.S. interests in the entire Middle East. The reason that George Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003 and oust Saddam Hussein was not just the threat posed by his potential use weapons of mass destruction. Of even greater immediacy was the administration's fear that Osama bin Laden might succeed in overthrowing Saudi Arabia's monarchy and, with the help of Iraq and Iran, control the price of Persian Gulf oil to Europe, Japan, and the United States. Am I suggesting an economic reason for our going to war? In fact, yes, even though oil was not the only reason.

Let's look at recent history. Since 1979 Iran has been ruled by a Revolutionary Islamic regime that overthrew an American ally, the Shah. He ensured the security of the Persian Gulf for over twenty-five years and its vital supply of oil to the West. That 1979 event meant that Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, both run by anti-American regimes, were unpredictable suppliers of oil. That left only Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as reliable friends in the Gulf who could ensure the flow of oil at moderate prices. This enabled Japan, Western Europe, and the United States to expand their economies and maintain a high standard of living. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, seized its oil fields, and threatened Saudi Arabia's oil production, President George Bush senior understood this vital economic threat to the West and decided that he must be stopped with force. Twelve years later, George Bush junior was similarly faced with a new grim reality, that Iraq, Iran, and Osama bin Laden might now team up to overthrow the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments and use the Gulf's oil as a weapon to force America out of the Middle East, and Israel out of Gaza and the West Bank. For fifty years, radical Arab leaders, including Nasser, Kadaffy, Assad, and Saddam, dreamed of being the new "Saladin" of the Arab people and leading the struggle to oust Western Crusaders from Arab lands. Osama has now become a hero of the Arab cause and the latest aspirant to Saladin's role.

George Bush's reelection means that he will continue the war against Al Qaeda around the world and vigorously pursue the war against insurgents in Iraq. After national elections in Iraq in January, I think Bush will reduce U.S. forces there but keep a significant number, perhaps 50-75,000, for an indefinite future to help the new government consolidate its power and defeat the insurgency, which may continue for years. Had John Kerry been elected, I fear he would have been pressured by Howard Dean's isolationist wing in the Democratic Party to withdraw from Iraq quickly and turn over the job to the United Nations. Fortunately, that will not happen. But we should not underestimate the continuing pain that casualties in Iraq will cause at home and the criticism this will generate among European and American critics of the war. Its financial costs will generate growing criticism in Congress.

The important news, however, is that the American people have given George Bush a clear vote of confidence to "stay the course" in Iraq.

Islamic extremism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The second major danger facing this country is Islamic extremism fueled by hatred of Israel for its treatment Palestinians and of the United States for supporting Israel. Al Qaeda's objective is to oust the Saudi government, drive all Western influences out of the Middle East, dismantle the state of Israel, and establish an Arab power bloc based on Islamic moral superiority. If Al Qaeda were able to topple the Saudi monarchy and unite the Arab countries against the West, Osama bin-Laden and his followers would reestablish Islamic regimes across the Middle East and North Africa and severely constrain world commerce and threaten America's and Europe's security role in the Mediterranean.

Continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is a major factor in stimulating anti-Americanism in all the Muslim countries. Muslims think the United States could, if it chose, persuade Israel and the Palestinians to accept a peace settlement that recognizes Palestinian rights to a homeland and the vital security interests of Israel. We will wait to see whether President Bush will now modify his full support for Ariel Sharon's policies, particularly if it turns out that Yasser Arafat, because of illness, is replaced by a new Palestinian leadership. But Bush will need to show stronger support for a viable Palestinian state if he expects to reduce the virulent anti-Americanism that currently exists across the Middle East and severely restrains those friendly Arab leaders, such as Egypt's Anwar Sadat, Jordan's King Abdullah, and the Saudi monarchy, from supporting his policies in Iraq.

Americans also need to understand that the war against Al Qaeda terrorism will be a long-term marathon that resembles the forty-year struggle with the Soviet Union for world hegemony. The difference is that this new enemy has no national state against which we can fight. Therefore, much patience will be needed to contain and eventually defeat this deadly new danger to western civilization.

Nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue states.

The third major danger is nuclear weapons produced by enemy states such as North Korea and Iran, and acquired by terrorist organizations. WMD in the hands of Al Qaeda terrorists is a huge threat and results from a world black-market in these deadly materials. Libya is one country that that decided to give up its nuclear ambitions and open the country to inspections and to trade. The United States recently responded by opening diplomatic relations with Libya after a thirty-year break.

Regarding North Korea, the Bush administration decided to employ a multilateral approach, working with Japan, China, and Russia, to persuade the Communist North Korean government to give up its nuclear program in return for economic aid. To encourage this diplomatic effort, the Pentagon recently announced that it would remove a third of its forces in South Korea. Washington has expressed a willingness to consider economic assistance if the North first agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. But the prospects of that occurring are not good, and more forceful measures may have to be taken, including a blockade of its ports to prevent shipments of nuclear weapons to other countries and to terrorist organizations.

Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power and President Bush's strong opposition encouraged Britain, France and Germany to mount a joint diplomatic effort to persuade Tehran's Islamic leaders to halt work on what is believed to be a nuclear weapons program, in exchange for lifting economic sanctions and restoring diplomatic relations with the United States. Iran says it has a right to become a nuclear power and has not permitted full international inspection of its facilities. Some Bush administration officials had expected that after the United States ousted Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq, Iran's leadership would find it prudent to cooperate on the nuclear weapons issue. That apparently is not happening. Unlike North Korea, Iran is an oil-rich country that is not susceptible to economic inducements to give up its nuclear weapons ambition. The question President Bush may face next year is whether he should use some degree of force, perhaps severe economic sanctions--including a blockade--if Iran refuses to stop its quest to become a nuclear power. Israel, which feels threatened by Iran's support of terrorism, might take its own measures to stop Iran's weapons program. That could ignite terrorism across the Middle East and lead to a general war there.

The danger of war between Taiwan and China.

A fourth danger is related to the nuclear issue because China is a key to a solution of North Korea's nuclear ambitions. However, China has an overriding national interest in another dangerous issue that potentially could bring it into conflict with the United States. That issue is Taiwan. When the Nationalist government fled the mainland in 1949 as the Red Army took over China, it established a government in Taiwan which claimed to represent all of China. By 1971 it was clear that the Communist regime would continue to hold power on the mainland, so President Nixon, on a historic visit to China that year, declared that the government of all China was located in Beijing, not Taiwan. Soon thereafter, China's U.N. Security Council seat was transferred from Taiwan to Beijing. In 1979 the United States opened formal diplomatic relations with China and reduced its mission in Taiwan to a non-diplomatic post. Nixon had declared there was only one China, and all U.S. presidents since then have reaffirmed that position. At the same time, the U.S. government officially opposes the use of force to settle the issue of Taiwan's relationship with China, urging the two sides to find a way to integrate through diplomatic means.

The danger today lies in the fact that a new Taiwanese president, elected in March, believes that his island nation should be an independent country and is seeking support in the United States. He wants to hold a referendum which many believe would result in an affirmative vote for independence. China has stated on many occasions that it will use force to prevent this move. Although President Bush has stated that the United States opposes independence for Taiwan, there is no guarantee that the current government of Taiwan will not press its case with members of Congress and the U.S. public. So far Beijing has depended on the United States to restrain Taiwan's leaders. But the risk of war is present if Taiwan tries to hold a referendum on this issue. In my view, we do not have an obligation to come to Taiwan's defense if it precipitates a war with China. China is a far larger interest of the United States in the 21st century than is Taiwan, and any U.S. president would risk an unnecessary war with China if he changed American support of the one China policy.

These four issues will be major challenges for President Bush and Congress next January. How they deal with them will largely determine whether the United States avoids another major terrorist attack on our country and whether we will avoid becoming embroiled in another regional war. We are fortunate that the election Tuesday produced a politically united government. What we now need is a reasonably united country to face the dangers of the next four years.

File last modified on Sunday, 29-NOV-2004 06:00 PM EST

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