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


March 2006

For nearly two hundred years since George Washington was president, the role of vice president in our political system could be compared to that of a crown prince: he had little power so long as the king was living. That's no longer true: Vice President Dick Cheney's major role in national security decision-making raises the question of whether he is co-president in foreign policy.

Historically, our political parties chose vice presidents to "balance the ticket," to appeal in those parts of the country where the nominees needed support. For example, the Democrats in 1944 selected Harry Truman of Missouri to run with Franklin Roosevelt of New York because he was from the mid-West and was acceptable to voters in the South. Similarly, Lyndon Johnson of Texas was chosen by John Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960 because he needed votes in Texas and elsewhere in the South in order to win the presidency. Jimmy Carter of Georgia selected Walter Minnesota in 1776 to give geographical balance on the ticket.

Ronald Reagan changed this general rule in 1980 and chose a running mate with strong credentials in foreign policy, to compensate for his own lack of experience. George H.W. Bush had served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and as ambassador to China. When he ran for president in 1988, however, Bush chose Dan Quayle of Indiana as his running mate because he needed electoral support in the mid-West, not a person with foreign policy credentials.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush fit the Reagan pattern. Both were successful governors but had little experience in dealing with complex foreign policy issues. Clinton chose Al Gore who had acquired extensive knowledge of foreign policy during his years in Congress, and Bush selected Dick Cheney who had been Secretary of Defense and had also served as senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.

Cheney's election as vice president in 2000 profoundly changed the importance of that position. Soon after the inauguration, he set up a national security staff in the vice president's office, to rival, some said, the formal White House national security office that had once been headed by Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, during the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, respectively.

When Bush appointed Condoleezza Rice as his national security advisor in 2001, Washington pundits speculated about whether her NSC staff or Cheney's new team would have the most influence in formulating national security policy. Cheney's enhanced role also raised questions about whether Bush's secretary of State, Colin Powell, would be given a reduced role in crafting administration policy.

The answer came soon after the dramatic events of 9-11:. it was clear that the president had given Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the primary responsibility for formulating America's response to international terrorism, in particular the decision to use the U.S. military to oust Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

According to Bob Woodward's authoritative book, Plan of Attack, Cheney was dismissive in 2002 of efforts to obtain United Nations support for the invasion and reluctance by some NATO allies to join the United States and Britain. State Department concerns about the potential for civil war in Iraq were ignored by Pentagon planners.

Following George Bush's reelection in 2004, his appointment of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State suggested that he wanted to increase the State Department's role in Middle East policy and check the influence of the Pentagon and the vice president's staff.

However, Cheney recently reasserted his role by questioning the administration's policy toward Russia. He brought together a group of outside experts to discuss what hardliners in the government view as the unfriendly moves by Soviet President Vladimir Putin in the Middle East, specifically on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian political standoff.

Not to be upstaged by the vice president's initiative, Secretary of State Rice, herself a Russia expert, brought in her own group of specialists to the State Department to discuss U.S. policy toward Russia. Unlike her predecessor, Colin Powell, she has the president's ear and intends to ensure that U.S. policy on Russia remains primarily in her department.

. Any president has the authority to confer on the vice president a leading role in foreign and national security policy. The risk is that if that person strongly favors either the State Department or the Pentagon, or the Treasury Department on international economic policy, the advice the president receives from leading experts in other federal departments is diminished, as clearly occurred on Iraq policy in 2002 and 2003. This is not a prudent way for any president to make wise decisions on foreign and national security policy.

File last modified on Sunday, 13-MAR-2006 12:21 PM EST

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