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



Now that foreign policy and national security are major issues in the election, President Obama and Governor Romney need to tell voters who are their choices for secretary of State, secretary of Defense, and secretary of the Treasury.

This is important because the official who becomes defense secretary is in direct line of command to the military when the president decides to deploy armed forces to deal with dangerous threats to U.S. interests abroad. Whether and when to use military force against Syria's brutal Assad regime is an example.

Similarly, the choices for secretary of State and secretary of the Treasury are crucial because they help formulate and implement the president's political, economic, and financial policies abroad. Economic sanctions against countries that pose serious challenges to U.S. interests are part of their responsibilities. Sanctions against Iran for its nuclear weapons program are part of that role.

In my view, the selection of Secretary of Defense is the most significant one, because of the huge management and financial responsibilities that the secretary has in this sprawling department. Experts call this the most difficult job in Washington, except for the president.

In the 1950s and 1960s, presidents picked leaders in business and industry to head the defense department because of their management experience. More recently, they selected persons who had been in Congress or had served in previous administrations.

The new practice was adopted by Ronald Reagan and has continued to the present. time. Examples are: Caspar Weinberger (Reagan), Richard Cheney (George H.W. Bush), William Cohen (Clinton), Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates (George W. Bush), and Robert Gates and Leon Panetta (Obama). Their knowledge of Washington politics and of national defense issues made them effective in managing the defense department and dealing with Congress.

Barack Obama was fortunate, after his election in 2008, to recruit two highly qualified persons to be secretary of State and secretary of Defense: Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and Robert Gates from the Bush administration. When Gates decided to retire in 2011, Obama persuaded another outstanding public servant, Leon Panetta, to take on this difficult job.

Another key Obama appointment, Tim Geithner, was head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and became Treasury secretary at a time when international economic policy played a major role in implementing the president's national security strategy.

However, these key cabinet members are expected to leave office at the end of the year, and if Obama is reelected who will he choose as replacements? Shouldn't voters be able to assess their qualifications before November 6? And if Mitt Romney becomes the next president, who will he want to fill these national security posts?

Parliamentary systems of government, like those in Britain, Canada, and Germany, provide for an opposition "shadow cabinet" whose members are known prior to national elections. The U.S. constitutional system places all the emphasis on the experience and personalities of two major candidates, not on a team of officials who will guide foreign and national security policy in the new administration.

At the start of the 21st century, the federal government has grown so large and cumbersome, and the president's foreign policy functions are so time-consuming, that one person, no matter how intelligent and experienced, cannot carry out all the responsibilities the United States is expected to fulfill as the world's leading power.

In their October 22 debate, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama should be asked what type of persons they would pick for secretaries of State, Defense, and Treasury. The secretary of State, for example, should have extensive foreign policy experience and familiarity in dealing with Congress, especially the Senate because it confirms all U.S. ambassadors. The Treasury secretary should have experience in the banking industry as well as in government.

In the final analysis, the November 6 election will depend mostlyon how satisfied, or dissatisfied, voters are with their personal financial situation. Many voters, however, including independents, are concerned about which candidate is likely to conduct foreign policy in a prudent manner while also protecting vital U.S. interests.

A large question for Romney is whether he favors the more aggressive foreign policy followed by George W. Bush in his first administration, or the more restrained one that Bush adopted during his second term. Romney's address last week at the Virginia Military Institute suggests he favors a more assertive, yet realistic approach, especially in the Middle East.

We should learn during the October 22 debate on foreign policy how far Romney and Obama differ in their approaches to foreign policy

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

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