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 next two months could be a dangerous time for the nation's security because George Bush, an unpopular lame duck president, will not turn the Oval Office over to president-elect Barack Obama until January 20.

For America's enemies and some rivals, this may be a time to test the president's resolve to defend U.S. interests abroad. Al Qaeda  could try to see whether George Bush's diminished authority permits him to respond forcefully to provocations.

The danger was underlined two weeks ago by Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In an interview with the Washington Post, he stated: "I think the enemy could well take advantage of the transfer of power in Washington." He added that officials are working "to make sure we are postured the right way around the world militarily, that our intelligence is focused on this issue." If a crisis arises, the JCS chief observed, "we need to be in a position to respond before and after the inauguration." ("Military Prepares for Threats During Presidential Transition," Oct. 28).

Military leaders painfully recall the bombing of the American destroyer USS Cole in October 2000. The Cole was refueling at Aden, capital of Yemen, when a small boat loaded with high explosives ripped an enormous hole in the ship, killing seventeen sailors severely injuring thirty-nine others. The ship was saved through heroic efforts by its crew and help from a British warship.

The outgoing president, Bill Clinton, did not respond forcefully to the attack because, the White House said, it was not clear who was responsible. After he left office, it was determined that it was an Al Qaeda operation. The attacks of 9-11 in the United States occurred the next September.

In 1992, in the transition between newly elected Bill Clinton and the outgoing president, George H.W. Bush, Mr. Bush decided to send troops to Somalia on a humanitarian mission, to help in feeding starving peasants whose international food shipments were being highjacked by Somali warlords. When President Clinton later authorized U.S. troops to confront the warlords, they were attacked and eighteen were killed. Congress then demanded that the troops be withdrawn.

In the area of international economic relations, George Bush's waning leadership will be tested November 15 during a Washington summit of the Group of 20. This meeting brings together the heads of eight leading economic powers plus key emerging ones such as China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia.

Led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, current president of the European Union, the meeting is expected to bring pressure on the United States to alter the international economic institutions that have operated since 1945. Bush will resist agreeing to major changes at this time, preferring to let President Obama decide how far Washington should go in accepting international restraints on U.S. financial institutions.

President Obama will face major national security problems when he assumes office January 20. Retired admiral Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, told an audience in Nashville recently: "After the new president-elect's excitement subsides…it is going to be dampened when he begins to focus on the realities of the myriad of problems and challenges." Al Qaeda is just one of them, he said. ("Intelligence Head Says Next President Faces Volatile Era," Washington Post, October 31).

Most presidents entering the White House, after defeating the opposition party‘s candidate, expect to make significant changes in foreign policy. Barack Obama is no exception. He pledged to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq within sixteen months, but he may find that this would create other dangers in the Persian Gulf, not least from Iran's Islamic regime which seems determined to build nuclear weapons.

Obama also wants to send more combat forces to Afghanistan, but the new head of Central Command, General David Petraeus, reportedly has reservations about adding forces at this time, believing negotiations with moderate Taliban leaders might be worth exploring before sending more troops. He is also aware that NATO allies do not want to increase their forces and may even withdraw them.

Barack Obama is pledged to building better relations with the NATO allies, but he will find them less willing than in earlier times to accept U.S. leadership. They wish to avoid confrontations abroad and persuade Washington to focus instead on negotiations to solve international disputes.

U.S. leadership in the next four years will be challenged by both enemies and some friends. Even though diplomacy is an essential part of America's leadership role, simply conferring with adversaries without indicating a willingness to use military power when vital interests are at stake will not impress countries such as Iran. Deciding which foreign policy issues rise to the level of vital interest will be President Obama's great challenge.

File last modified on Saturday, 08-NOV-2008 7:56 PM EST

Feedback to Author