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



President Obama faces a daunting foreign policy dilemma: How can the United States pay for its massive economic and security commitments abroad while tens of millions of Americans are unemployed, the 2009 budget deficit has soared over a trillion dollars, and his proposed health care entitlement will add nearly another trillion?

General Stanley McChrystal's request for up to 40,000 additional troops and large economic aid to fight the Afghanistan war, and the new $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan to fight its own insurgency, highlight the president's quandary.

The real question confronting the White House is whether our economy is strong enough to sustain U.S. military commitments in the Persian Gulf, the Korea-Japan sector of Northeast Asia, and in Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Adding to pressure on Congress is the reality that before the end of 2009, it will be forced to increase the national debt to pay for the massive spending programs it passed to stabilize the damaged economy. The recently posted $1.4 trillion deficit for FY 2009 underscores the fact that America's unbridled spending has pushed the federal debt to a dangerous level.

After the 9-11 attacks on the United States, a Republican-controlled Congress refused to reconsider the huge tax cuts it had enacted just three months earlier. This was despite the reality that additional funds were urgently needed to pay for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and increased budgets for Central Intelligence Agency and the new Department of Homeland Security.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress resolved this matter by adding the costs to the deficit. Until 2008, that seemed manageable because the economy was growing and modest deficits could be accommodated. For example, when George W. Bush approved a surge of 22,000 troops for Iraq, the cost was added to an emergency defense appropriation. The $459 billion deficit in FY 2008 was viewed as acceptable.

In 2009, that's no longer possible. The "great recession" that began last year has forced Americans for the first time in a generation to worry about debts on credit cards, home mortgages, and federal budgets. Additionally, the public is aware that much of the federal debt is funded by China and Japan and both express real concern about the declining dollar and America's unwillingness to curtail its profligate spending habits.

Regarding the $1 trillion health care entitlement now being debated in Congress, Columnist George Will characterized it as "a new entitlement" that will be paid for "the way much of the government is paid for--by borrowing from China." (Daily Progress and Washington Post, Oct. l8)

What options does the United States have for handling the deficit crisis? Here are three potential remedies, none of them palatable to congressmen and senators who face reelection next year.

Raise taxes on higher incomes and increase user fees. Americans who earn more than $200,000 a year should be obliged to pay higher taxes. Anti-tax politicians in Congress and in state legislatures should accept the reality that opposition to all tax increases puts America's financial independence in jeopardy. Also, raising the tax on gasoline by a modest annual rate would make the country more energy independent and help federal and state governments to build rapid transit systems that the country desperately needs and other major countries already have.

Limit federal spending on entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, and ensure that new programs like health care legislation are funded by cuts in other federal programs. We should see no repeat of Congress's enacting the Medicare Prescription Drug program in 2003 but refusing to fund it.

Avoid new foreign policy commitments that add billions to the deficit, and also scale back the cost of current ones. Costs must be part of the president's discussion on how many additional troops should be sent to Afghanistan. In addition, the new $7.5 billion aid program for Pakistan should be offset by reductions in other large programs, specifically those for Egypt, Israel, and Turkey.

An additional remedy that should be considered, even if not deemed feasible, is to elect members of the House of Representatives to three-year terms instead of two. This would give them two years to solve politically difficult issues like health care before they face their constituents.

Today, congressmen have only one year to legislate, as the second year is largely devoted to raising money for reelection while putting off controversial votes. American democracy would benefit from giving members of Congress one more year to resolve crucial national issues.

File last modified on Tuesday, 6-OCT-2009 9:53 PM EST

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