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 expensive and distasteful election campaign is thankfully over. A new Congress will convene in January and include many new faces, including the likely new Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner of Ohio.

But what will that new Congress, with a Republican led House and Democrat controlled Senate, accomplish in the next two years? Will it deal with the fundamental economic and foreign policy issues threatening the country's well-being? Or will we see political gridlock for another two years?

If you are a pessimist, you'll believe that little will be done because both parties will play hard-ball politics up to the 2012 presidential election. If you're slightly optimistic, you will hope that Republican leaders decide it's in their interest to show legislative successes before 2012, to avoid being rejected by voters in that election.

Major issues such as tax relief for the middle class, immigration reform, and an energy policy that reduces America's dangerous dependence on foreign oil are examples.

David Broder, in a recent column (Washington Post , Oct. 21) titled "When country came first for politicians," cited a time two decades ago when congressional leaders understood that some policies were so crucial to the country's well-being that they bridged their differencesand enacted legislation they considered vital to the nation's security.

Reducing the federal deficit, which hit $1.3 trillion last year, is the most urgent challenge. It's high on the agenda of newly-energized Republican members, as well as many Democrats. Yet, this task cannot be accomplished unless federal entitlement programs are reduced AND taxes are raised on those earning more than $500,000 a year.

Remarkably, Britain's new conservative government, headed by David Cameron, astonished his country by proposing to slash all government programs by up to 20 percent, increase taxes on the wealthy, and boost the national sales tax (VAT) . The Washington Post editorialized (Oct. 24) that "U.S. policymakers could learn from the painful budget treatment being administered in the United Kingdom."

What effect will the Nov. 2 elections have on Barack Obama's ability to deal with major foreign policy issues? A skeptic will conclude that little if anything will be accomplished on four pressing issues--Iran's nuclear ambitions, China's currency manipulation, Palestinian statehood, and withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. A more optimistic person would say that Obama now has a freer hand to deal with these thorny issues because the next elections are two years away. Let‘s consider the possibilities.

Iran's ambitions. Iran's Islamic regime expects to replace the United States as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf region and believes that acquiring nuclear weapons is a means to accomplish that goal. But if neighboring Gulf states, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, resist Iran's pressure and ally themselves with the United States, Iran's acquiring a few nuclear weapons will not change the regional power balance. Saudi Arabia may even invite the Pentagon to reestablish military bases there.

China's currency. The new Congress will be more intent on retaliating against China for refusing to let the yuan rise against the dollar. The imbalance enabled China to acquire a huge trade surplus with the United States and hold nearly a trillion dollars in U.S. Treasury securities. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner recently persuaded other G-20 countries to help convince Beijing to change its protectionist policies. If it does not, Mr. Obama will be pressed by Congress to take retaliatory measures in order to protect vital U.S. economic interests.

A Palestinian state. Both President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu support statehood for the Palestinians. But Israel opposes the return of Palestinians who were forced out of Israel when it became a state in 1948. Netanyahu resumed building Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and White House sponsored negotiations have stalled. With U.S. elections over, the president should be freer to lay out a U.S. plan that supports Palestinian statehood without the right of return, and with suitable security guarantees for Israel. Obama hinted recently that the United States might not veto a U.N. resolution supporting creation of a Palestinian state with conditions. Pro-Israel members of Congress will vigorously oppose such a move, but Obama may decide to take the political heat in the expectation that by 2012 the public will support his efforts.

Afghanistan. Obama will be freer to direct the Pentagon to start the withdrawal next July of 60,000 combat troops he sent there in 2009 and this year. He doesn't expect to withdraw all U.S. forces, but suggests that America will retain a smaller force to train Afghanistan's army and police to help prevent a Taliban takeover. Congressional critics will protest that Obama is abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban. But he may calculate that public opinion will support the troop drawdown and the funding for a war that is entering its tenth year.

Obama has more freedom in setting U.S. foreign policy because a president has greater constitutional authority there than in domestic affairs. His reelection prospects in 2012 will depend not only on how well he handles the economy, but also on his accomplishments in foreign policy.

File last modified on Saturday, 06-SEP-2010 5:05 PM EST

Feedback to Author