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 2011

Lecture delivered Dr. Donald Nuechterlein to a meeting of the Military Officers' Association of America (MOAA), in Charlottesville, Virginia, on March 24, 2011)

It is not enough, in my view, to discuss U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East without first defining the national interests that guide the formulation of foreign and national security policy. This is especially true in the volatile situation the United States faces in the Middle East today.

The National Interest Matrix which I developed some years ago offers a framework that concerned citizens like yourselves may use to think through what you believe are the essential factors that should condition U.S. foreign policy.

The first task is to consider four basic, underlying national interests that guide all U.S. policy. We will then assess the intensity of the basic interests when applied to the Middle East generally and to individual countries of the region.

Basic National Interests

Levels/Intensity of threats to Basic National Interests

How to Determine a Vital Interest

The difficult job that a President and the National Security Council grapple with in a foreign crisis is deciding whether the issue is at the vital, or major level.

If they decide a US interest is vitally affected, the President may order some level of military force to be used, in order to persuade an antagonist to change its policy. If they conclude the issue is major, i.e. serious but not dangerous, they will elect to negotiate further, even though the result could be painful.

The State Department normally prefers to keep a foreign policy issue at the major level and continue to negotiate. The Defense Department must be ready to deploy armed forces if the President decides the issue is vital and orders their use.

I have argued for many years that foreign policy and national security planners give greater weight to the desired outcome of foreign crises, and give too little attention to the potential costs of using military force to achieve that result.

America paid a high price for such miscalculations in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan, and most recently in Iraq. Are we doing so again in Libya?

Historical U.S. Interests in the Middle East

Until 1948, the United States had only a peripheral interest in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, because Great Britain was the major power in the area, which included Egypt, Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran. The U.S. had a potential economic interest in Saudi Arabia's oil reserves, and in February 1945 President Franklin Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud, on his return from the Yalta Conference with Stalin and Churchill, to cement relations. It should be noted that at the time, 1945, America was a major exporter of oil to world markets.

All this changed in 1948 when Britain announced that it would withdraw from Palestine. President Truman had to decide whether the United States should plan to replace Britain as the guarantor of peace in that region. In the same year, 1948, Israel declared its independence after fighting a war with Arab countries and the United States granted it diplomatic recognition. The Cold War was then beginning in Europe, and the Middle East suddenly loomed much larger in U.S. interests in the ensuing contest with the Soviet Union for influence there. After the Cold War ended in 1990, U.S. interests were focused on isolating Iran's hostile Islamic regime, and dangers posed by a brutal, anti-American dictator in Iraq.

U.S. Interests in the Middle East

The question before us is: How important are the Middle East and North Africa to the United States today, and for what national interest reasons? Here are four questions we should ask ourselves:

  1. To what extent is the defense of the United States itself affected? Does any country or group of them constitute a serious threat to North America?
  2. How greatly is the economic well-being of the United States impacted by events in the region, and for what reasons? How do you factor in the region's oil?
  3. How important is peace and security in the Middle East and North Africa to the interests of the United States? Which countries are truly vital to the U.S.?
  4. How important are the promotion of freedom, democracy, and fair elections in the countries of this region?

In a newspaper column last month, I suggested that the United States has four interests in the Middle East that are at, or near, the vital level. These are:

We should ask ourselves this question: Which of these four interests are sufficiently important that, if they are seriously challenged, the United States should employ its armed forces?

In 2011, Americans need to address this fundamental question: Is our country rich enough and powerful enough to take on new military responsibilities in the Middle East and North Africa, for example, in Libya in light of the major U.S. military involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq? Perhaps not.

We may look back on March 2011 as the time when Americans decided that this country should no longer be viewed as the world's policeman which intervenes with armed forces anywhere in the world where freedom and human rights are threatened. The costs of doing so are probably beyond our capacity and our willingness to sustain. It is likely that Congress, under increasing pressure from voters, will look more carefully at U.S. world-wide commitments and reduce government military funding that does not meet the criteria of vital national interest. This should be a gradual process, but it is time that countries around the world, and the American public, accept the reality that the current reassessment of U.S. strategic interests will reduce the number of countries where the United States will commit its own troops to combat. Retrenchment does not imply decline; more correctly, it suggests a realistic way for America to regain its economic and political influence in this increasingly turbulent world.

File last modified on Monday, 11-APR-2010 10:05 AM EST

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