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



The seemingly endless, media-driven, stridently negative, election campaign is finally over. Now we wait for Washington's response to our dangerous financial crisis.

Unfortunately, the election's outcome reflects the continuing deep divisions that plague American society. It suggests that American voters, like those in Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, are unprepared to accept serious cuts in their standard of living.

The next president faces three fundamental tests of his leadership, and a reelected Barack Obama has that daunting responsibility

Avoid retreat from world leadership

A major factor, largely unreported in the campaign, was voters' deep frustration with America's costly military interventions abroad, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. This sentiment underscores their reluctance to support new military commitments in Libya, Syria, and Iran.

During the early campaign, Mitt Romney sounded like a cold warrior, promising to show robust U.S. leadership abroad. He pledged a steep increase in the defense budget and came close to encouraging Israel's hawkish government to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Romney's tone changed during September and October when his aides realized that the public was in no mood to accept more aggressive policies abroad.

In the third presidential debate, on foreign policy, Romney agreed with Obama on many aspects of foreign policy, astonishing his hawkish supporters. He agreed it was time to end military operations in Afghanistan in 2014. And despite pressure from some hawkish senators, including John McCain, that America must show leadership on Syria, the Republican contender showed no interest in using U.S. forces.

Despite wide media coverage of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, the public was not aroused.

The reality is that most Americans don't want a robust foreign policy, o ne that could involve military interventions, high casualties, and high budget costs. However, a return to detached outlook on the world could threaten America's economic well-being and diminish its role as a superpower. The president urgently needs to build public confidence in his international policies and persuade Congress that politically popular protectionist measures will do significant harm to U.S. trade and jobs.

Deal promptly with our financial crisis

America's massive national debt and Congress' continued deficit spending threaten to plunge the country into another deep recession. The president must assert strong leadership, working across party lines, to persuade Congress to enact comprehensive legislation that cuts entitlements, raises revenue, reduces unnecessary government spending, and finds gets people back to work.

A year ago, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, warned Congress that the most serious threat to long-term national security was the looming financial crisis that will diminish America's ability to defend its interests. A similar warning came from the Simpson-Bowles Commission, set up by President Obama in 2010, that offered a plan to avoid a fiscal crisis. Congress has ignored its proposals.

The danger is obvious: Unless the United States puts its financial house in order soon, it will not have the required influence abroad to sustain a strong economy at home.

Provide for adequate national defense.

During the election campaign, Romney criticized the president and Congress for cutting the military budget for the current fiscal year and agreeing to another cut of nearly $500 billion during the next decade. That` will happen in January if Congress fails to reach a budget compromise before December 31.

Romney pledged that if he became president, he would substantially increase the DOD budget, especially the Navy's. He argued that America cannot exercise global leadership without overwhelming military power. A major question for President Obama is this: How large a defense force does America need to protect its vital interests?

A strong case can be made that the United States doesn't require a larger defense establishment; what it needs is restructured armed forces that reflect requirements of the 21st century instead of those that won the Cold War. The newly restructured army, one that currently provides smaller, more mobile forces to fight terrorists abroad, is a major step forward. Reducing purchases of extremely costly fighter aircraft is another. Closing unneeded military bases abroad is also necessary.

A similar argument can be made about the costs of the intelligence establishment. There is major overlap in responsibilities among the numerous defense intelligence agencies and the CIA. The president should press Congress to approve consolidations.

The outlook

America may be at a point in history where its political institutions are incapable of making the hard choices regarding its destiny. This type of challenge comes to all great nations and empires, and many have declined or collapsed when their leadership failed to take needed action to reverse a dangerous trend.

Some observers put the blame for political gridlock solely on Congress. But this misses a more compelling fact: the American public is more divided on fundamental questions about society's needs than in any period since 1930. As a result, President Obama should demonstrate a level of national leadership that has been largely lacking in his first term.

Our country's future well-being depends on it.

File last modified on Monday, 12-OCT-2012 2:23 PM EST

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