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



Violent demonstrations in the Middle East dramatically thrust foreign policy into the election campaign. As a result, the televised foreign policy debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama ion October 22 could affect the election's outcome.

Americans are painfully aware that huge anti-American protests against a U.S.-made, derogatory film about Islam led to a terrorist attack in Libya that killed four American officials, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and caused attacks on U.S. embassies in Egypt and other Arab states and countries across the Muslim world.

While initially criticizing the State Department for its response to rioting in Egypt, Romney has been careful so far about commenting on the violence. One factor is uncertainly about how U.S. voters would react to chastising U.S. leaders until more is known about the groups behind the attacks.

In the Obama-Romney foreign policy debate in October, here are four large issues that need to be addressed:

Relations with Russia.

Romney stated earlier this year that Russia is America's top international adversary and that Obama has been too accommodating to Moscow's opposition to missile defense in Eastern Europe and the civil war in Syria. Obama believes a decent working relationship with Moscow must take account of Russia's national interests as well as our own.

The two candidates need to debate how the United States should conduct relations with countries that lie near Russia's borders and are viewed as potential threats to Russia's security. How each candidate would deal with President Vladimir Putin is a key question.

Iran's nuclear threat.

Romney said a few months ago that he agreed with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that Iran is an existential threat to Israel and must be prevented from building nuclear weapons. The Republican contender implied that he would back Israel if it decides to attack Iran's nuclear processing plants before Tehran builds a bomb. Obama too asserts he will not accept a nuclear-armed Iran, but he insists there is more time for tough economic sanctions to work before military means are employed.

A crucial issue that Obama and Romney should address is whether the United States can negotiate with Iran's current government if it agrees to stop additional enrichment of uranium and permits intrusive international inspections of all its nuclear facilities.

Relations with Arab countries.

Obama's reluctance to "show leadership" on dealing with the Syrian crisis, implying some level of military intervention, resembles his stance regarding "no boots on the ground" in Libya during NATO's intervention in 2011. It's also in line with his willingness to support Egypt's military leaders when they bowed to massive public demonstrations and removed President Hosni Mubarak, a long-time U.S. ally. Additionally, Obama's reluctance to become more involved in the Middle East reflects his frustration with Israel's government over its refusal to stop settlement building in occupied West Bank territories.

Obama seems willing on disengaging U.S. power from the Arab world while retaining U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf to protect the vital flow of oil. Romney apparently disagrees with a shift in U.S. priorities away from the Middle East, especially as it affects Israel‘s well-being in the region. The October debate should clarify their positions, including where each of them stands on intervention in Syria‘s civil war.

China's regional ambitions.

Both Romney and Obama seem ready to adopt a more forceful stance toward China, but with different emphasis. Romney wants tougher trade policies and would apply greater pressure on Beijing to devalue its currency. He wants China to be officially branded a "currency manipulator." Obama agrees that China pursues unfair trade policies, and he recently took several cases to the World Trade Organization for adjudication.

But Obama is shifting U.S. strategic policy toward the Western Pacific by bolstering U.S. naval and air forces in the region. He wants to reassure U.S. allies like Japan that the United States will remain a Pacific power and will defend countries being pressured by Beijing. Romney does not disagree with a shift of forces but not the expense of the Middle East. He proposes a large increase in the U.S. defense budget to do both.

Despite the emergence of foreign policy as a campaign topic, our lagging economy and unemployment will remain the primary issues unless an international crisis erupts. Barring that, Obama's cautious approach to foreign policy versus Romney's call for more robust American leadership constitutes a major divergence that needs a public debate before the November election.

File last modified on Wednesday, 30-SEP-2012 11:45 PM EST

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