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



Americans hope that 2012 will be a better year for them than 2011 was. But how will that be achieved given the political gridlock in Washington? Here are four actions that elected leaders, including President Obama, should be pressed to take before November's general elections.

Congress should raise taxes and cut back entitlements. For too long, Congressional leaders have refused to deal with the debt crisis facing the country. The ballooning costs of entitlement programs, primarily Medicare and Medicaid, and the new mandatory health insurance law enacted in 2010, will add trillions more to federal deficits and the national debt in the next decade.

It's obvious to nonpartisan experts that Medicare and Medicaid costs need to be cut substantially and that taxes on all Americans, not just the rich, should be raised. But this requires bipartisan compromise in the Senate and House, which proved impossible during 2011. Republicans were stymied by Tea Party freshmen who came to office determined never to raise taxes. Moderate Democrats were outflanked by the party's left-wing "progressives" who refuse to consider entitlement reductions.

What's needed is an outpouring of voter outrage in both parties, warning their congressmen that they risk defeat in November if they refuse to support a bipartisan effort to cut entitlement spending and raise taxes. Congress came close to a deal in 2011. It must be pressured to do this in 2012.

Accelerate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The presence of large numbers of U.S. military and civilian support personnel in that country is a continuing drain on the Defense Department's reduced budget for FY 2013 and beyond. It also encourages Pakistan, our not-so-friendly ally, to hold for ransom the huge supply line of fuel, ammunition, and food that enables U.S. forces to operate in Afghanistan.

Although the United States is committed by agreement with NATO allies and the Afghanistan government to keep troops there until 2014, President Obama has discretion on how fast to drawn down the force prior to that deadline. Obviously, the Pentagon and CIA will retain their capability to launch air strikes, using drones, into the al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in Pakistan. Hostilities will not end, but the large number of Americans should decline and enable Congress to reallocate funds to other defense needs.

Be serious on defending U.S. trade interests with China. Ten years ago, China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), with strong U.S. support, for both economic and political reasons. Among them were the trade advantages of China's fast-growing economy and its huge market. Many argued that building up China's internal economy would lead not only to large markets for American exports, but also encourage China's authoritarian government to be cooperative on security issues in Asia.

Both assumptions are now in question. Economically, China took advantage of WTO rules to push its low-cost exports while restricting many U.S. exports, arguing that it was a "developing country." Some American companies that invested heavily in China and moved production there have been disillusioned by Beijing's protectionist policies.

On the political front, China's claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea led President Obama to announce in October an expansion of U.S. military presence in the region and caution China about its belligerent moves. Under congressional prodding, the White House is considering "dumping" charges against China in the WTO.

In sum, it's time to deal realistically with China about its trade and security policies.

Promote democracy abroad, but cool official rhetoric. Throughout our history, Americans have touted the benefits of individual freedom, democratic government, and the rule of law as the best way for societies to organize themselves.

Beginning in the 1970s, with pressure from Congress, presidents and secretaries of state were encouraged to speak out against abuses by countries whose policies toward their own people failed to live up to U.S. standards. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush followed a policy of speaking privately to other leaders about their failure to protect human rights. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, however, spoke publicly about human rights abuses in other countries, often with negative results.

Today, the Obama administration, confronted with revolutionary changes in the Arab world, faces a serious dilemma: Should Washington publicly pressure the governments of Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia to change their policies, even if this could result in anti-American Islamist groups gaining political power? In short, can U.S. policy risk additional Iran-type regimes in the Middle East?

In my view, U.S. policymakers should avoid lecturing other countries on their human rights policies. We should leave it to American media and non-government organizations (NGOs) to do that important job, while the president should look primarily at the foreign policy of friendly governments and speak privately to leaders about human rights deficiencies.

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

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