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 2012

Every four years, when Americans decide who should be president, U.S. national interests often take a back seat to partisan political pandering by presidential candidates.

For example, Republican candidates tried to outbid each other during the TV debates on who was the strongest supporter of Israel in its threat to bomb Iran because of its suspected nuclear weapons program. One reason is the large sums of money that wealthy Jewish donors contribute to political campaigns through various PACs.

Last week, Mitt Romney stated in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that his first foreign trip as president would be to Jerusalem. That's a special kind of pandering.

Barack Obama says that economic and political sanctions should be given time to work before military action against Iran is considered. He takes issue with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on this issue, asserting that "there is too much loose talk of war." (New York Times, March 4). Netanyahu threatens to attack Iran's nuclear installations unilaterally if Washington doesn't adopt a more aggressive policy to halt its nuclear program.

Similarly on Syria, human rights groups, pundits, and politicians are urging the president to take the lead in forcing the ouster of the brutal Assad regime, even if this entails the use of U.S. forces. They cite Libya as a precedent but forget that Obama decided early that NATO, not the United States, should take the lead in the campaign to oust the Kadaffy regime. He also asserted there would be "no U.S. boots on the ground."

Senator John McCain is now calling on the president to use U.S. air power to bomb Syrian military targets in order to stop the killing of protesters. Will Obama resist these humanitarian pressures to intervene militarily in Syria?

A third case where partisan interests trumped national interests is the Keystone Pipeline project with Canada. Here a private Canadian company, with Ottawa's blessing, proposes to build a pipeline from Alberta's large oil sands region across U.S. mid-western states to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. Canada, the largest exporter of crude oil to the United States, supports a project that will reduce the heavy U.S. dependence on Persian Gulf oil. However, strong objections from powerful environmental groups within the Democratic Party persuaded the Obama White House to put off the Keystone project approval until after the November elections.

It should be obvious that obtaining more oil from Canada is far preferable to being dependent on the uncertainties of Persian Gulf oil exports, especially in the current Middle East political climate. Yet, the Keystone deal was delayed because of President Obama's re-election strategy.

In each of these cases, U.S. national interests are subordinated to the partisan interests of political candidates and major interest groups. Most Americans, according to recent polls, do not favor using U.S. forces in another Middle East war so long as tough economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts are employed to deal with Iran and Syria. In view of this, how strongly will members of Congress support Israel's pressure for war?

A larger strategic issue.

The larger question raised in a discussion of U.S. national interests is this: Is any foreign policy issue threatening America's economic and security well-being as crucial as the one that no presidential candidate wants to talk about: Will America be forced to cut back drastically on its military commitments to other countries if Congress can't agree in 2012 on how to prevent additional massive cuts in the defense budget? The problem is simple to state, and wrenchingly difficult to resolve in an election year: A dangerous erosion in the U.S. economy will not be reversed without both tax increases and entitlement cuts, especially in Medicare. It's that simple.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, warned in congressional testimony last fall that the most serious national security threat to the country is economic, not military. His fear is that the United States cannot sustain a strong national defense and foreign policy if it doesn't get its economic house in order.

President Obama recently announced a shift in defense priorities that gives higher priority to East Asia and the Pacific regions. China's growing ambitions and other Asian countries' fears about their security are the reason. Twenty years ago, the president's action would have been less dramatic because the Pentagon had both larger budgets and sufficient forces to provide security in East Asia as well as Europe and the Middle East Today, financial constraints on the DOD budget make this more difficult.

Today, other governments, both friends and adversaries, have growing doubts about whether any U.S. president will be able to conduct a robust foreign policy in light of gridlock in Congress over the defense budget and projected cuts to State Department foreign aid programs. In reality, the long-term strategic interests of the United States are being jeopardized by partisan political paralysis in Washington.

File last modified on Thursday, 12-MAR-2012 2:48 PM EST

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