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



The 2008 presidential race has already started, even though George Bush will occupy the White House for another three years. One important question that the candidates must address is this: "How well do you understand the foreign policy and national security issues that confront a president?"

When America emerged as a superpower after World War II, voters expected those running for president to understand the crucial issues that were involved in the Cold War. But over the past sixty years, only three presidents have stood out as being highly qualified to handle foreign policy crises: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush.

Eisenhower led the allied armies to victory in Europe, Nixon was vice president for eight years during the 1950s, and Bush spent his career in senior executive branch positions, as ambassador to China, CIA director, and vice president in the 1980s.

Others, like Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, had little prior experience in dealing with international politics. And each made serious mistakes: Kennedy stumbled badly over the Bay of Pigs fiasco; Johnson erred greatly in assuming that sending half a million troops to Vietnam would force North Vietnam to negotiate; Carter could not resolve the Iran hostage crisis; and Reagan got into serious trouble over the Iran-Contra scandal.

Today, most of the probable candidates are U.S. senators: Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Russell Feingold (Democrats); John McCain, William Frist, George Allen (Republicans). Senators generally have a good knowledge of foreign and national security issues. But, over the past thirty years, four governors, not senators, were elected president: Jimmy Carter (1776), Ronald Reagan (1980), Bill Clinton (1992), George W. Bush (2000).

This year, governors from three key states have signaled their interest in running in 2008: Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, George Pataki of New York, and Mark Warner of Virginia. Given the strong possibility that one of these will be elected in 2008, how much foreign policy knowledge should we expect them to have when taking office? And where will they turn to acquire an understanding of the crucial issues that may confront one of them?

Here are four major issues that could become crises in the next two years.

President Bush talked about three of these issues in his State-of-the-Union address on January 31. On Iraq, he offered no timetable for the withdrawal of troops, but he cited the growing ability of Iraqi forces to handle the insurgency. On Palestine, he urged Hamas leaders to accept the state of Israel and continue negotiations for a peace agreement.

But his strongest words were reserved for Iran: "The regime in that country sponsors terrorists in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, and that must come to an end." He also issued this warning: "The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons."

America is currently engaged in one Middle East war (Iraq), may find it necessary to stop another conflict (Israel and Palestinians), and may soon need to make the agonizing decision on whether to launch a preemptive war to prevent another Middle East country from acquiring nuclear weapons (Iran). By 2008, presidential candidates must demonstrate to voters that they have both the knowledge and wisdom to deal effectively with the major foreign policy issues that will confront this country.

File last modified on Sunday, 22-JAN-2006 07:03 PM EST

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