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

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Donald Nuechterlein

PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES AND FOREIGN POLICY

DECEMBER 2011

Political experts say that foreign policy will take a back seat to domestic issues in the 2012 presidential election, in view of the country's economic slowdown.

There's a large assumption here. We are eleven months away from November 2012, and few people can predict how the U.S. economy will look next year. Even fewer can foresee what crises could occur in 2012 that refocus public attention to national security issues.

The media's near obsession with the Republican candidates campaigning for their party's nomination in instructive. As a result, serious challenges in Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, and China get secondary attention, especially on TV news.

In their numerous TV debates, Republican contenders, with two exceptions, sound like cold warriors showing they can be more bellicose than Barack Obama in defending U.S. interests abroad, as defined by themselves.

The two exceptions are Ron Paul who wants America essentially to withdraw from the world, and John Huntsman, a former ambassador to China, whose foreign policy statements show moderation, compared to his Republican rivals.

Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachman try to outbid each other in support for Israel, no matter what policies its government pursues toward the Palestinians and its threats\to bomb Iran.. Most Republican candidates talk tough about dealing with Chins for refusing to "play by the rules" in trade relations. And they want to be more aggressive with Pakistan for supporting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

One explanation for this tough talk is the candidates' need to assure the party's conservative base that they are like Ronald Reagan was in defending U.S. interests. They especially intend to separate themselves from Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose policies they see as indecisive and weak on national security.

Republicans find it difficult to brand Obama and Clinton as weak on foreign policy because they speak forcefully on Pakistan, Syria, Iran, and China. But, critics argue, the president should take stronger measures to reinforce his polices.

Israel is an exception. Here the president and Congress, especially Republicans, are in sharp disagreement on dealing with Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line government, which is dependent on ultraconservative religious parties. Senators and congressmen roundly applauded Netanyahu during his speech to a joint session of Congress last May, and they generally support Israel's aggressive policies toward its neighbors.

Two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta criticized Israel's government for isolating the country from its neighbors by pursuing hard-line policies. Turkey, which now leads the region's growing showdown with Syria's brutal regime, refused to reopen diplomatic relations with Israel until it apologizes for killing nine Turkish citizens who attempted to bring humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza. Jordan and Egypt strongly criticize Netanyahu for building settlements on Palestinian lands.

On Iran, the White House is joining an international coalition, including Turkey, to impose more sanctions on Tehran, to persuade it either to give up its nuclear weapons program or face potential revolution at home. Obama soft-peddles a military action option but does not "take it off the table."

As for China, probably the most important U.S. national interest today, the president, as well as secretaries Clinton and Panetta, are building a coalition of Asian states that, hopefully, will persuade Beijing to rein in its nationalist groups that insist on extending China's sphere of influence into Northeast and Southeast Asia. Clinton's well-publicized visit to Burma is part of the strategy, as is the new agreement with Australia to base U.S. troops at Darwin on its north coast. India will be part of this containment policy. But diplomacy, not military confrontation, is Obama's method of dealing with China, whose trade America needs. Republican John Huntsman supports this policy.

The question remains, however: will foreign policy play a major role in next year's presidential race?

If the economy improves by summer 2012 and voters feel more confident about their personal financial situation, foreign policy may attract more attention. But the public's disenchantment with the high cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will make it more difficult for any politician to engender voter enthusiasm for new armed interventions abroad.

File last modified on Thursday, 15-DEC-2011 4:32 PM EST

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