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



2012 has been a momentous year for Americans, not least because we finally ended political campaigning and managed to hold peaceful elections on November 6. This and other events occurring this year will shape the way Americans view themselves, and the world, in the coming decade. Here are four significant developments.

Assessing the elections

Barack Obama won a major electoral victory (332 to 206) over Mitt Romney, but his margin in the popular vote was much narrower, 50.8 percent to Romney's 47.4. Democrats who claim that Obama won a decisive victory over his Republican rival need to consider that 60.2 million voters chose Romney, not Obama. That's a huge number of non-supporters.

Still, the president won a second term, as most incumbent presidents have, and Democrats increased their majority in the Senate. That gives Obama added clout in dealing with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

How will Obama now work with Congress to resolve the looming budget crisis? Although every president desires to leave a favorable legacy, and Obama is no exception, he could squander this quest by bringing on another recession if he and House Speaker John Boehner fail to reach a long-term budget compromise by January 1. At this writing, a comprehensive deal seems remote. Yet, I'm guardedly optimistic that Obama will want to enhance his reputation as a leader by forging a compromise that raises revenue, cuts spending, and puts the U.S. economy on a sound growth trajectory.

Reassessing foreign policy

Obama's first term on foreign policy was notable as much for what he did not do as it was for the actions he took. For example, he did not use the military to support opposition forces in Syria, despite large civilian casualties inflicted by the Assad regime's air force, and pressure to intervene from senators and several major newspapers. On Iran, Obama resisted pressure from Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu to set a deadline for military action to stop Tehran from building nuclear weapons. He also largely ignored those pundits and members of Congress who want to slow troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and retain a major force there after 2014.

The Economist (Dec. 1) captioned a commentary "The Obama Doctrine," to describe the White House's reluctance to become entangled in military operations abroad, as Obama prefers to burnish his legacy by building a stronger nation at home. Historians cite the presidency of Lyndon Johnson to show how one president squandered credit for major achievements at home by engaging in a divisive, costly war--Vietnam.

Although Obama may prefer to concentrate on domestic policy in his second term, much of the world, including Europe, wants U.S. leadership in resolving crises abroad. These often hit suddenly and require a president to decide quickly how best to respond. One might hope that China will avoid military clashes in international waters off its coasts, and that Russia will help in resolving the growing Middle East crisis. But China and Russia have national interests that too often are not parallel to U.S. interests.

Tensions involving Iran, North Korea, or Palestine can easily become crises, and the president would then be torn between adopting a policy of caution or limited military intervention. Either course carries large risks for a president's legacy, as George W. Bush learned by interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq after the attacks of 9-11.

Immigration reform

Amending immigration law has been a political football for decades. But the November elections forced Republicans to reassess their intransigence, as they contemplate that seventy-two percent of Hispanic voters chose Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. In four states--Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Florida--the Hispanic vote may well have cost Romney the election.

The question now is whether the White House and Congress can agree to support incremental changes on immigration reform, for example, the STEM program that would allow 55,000 foreign graduate students to obtain green cards to work in the United States, which is not legal today. The larger question is how to deal with millions of illegal residents who are gainfully employed across the United States. Comprehensive immigration reform may not be politically feasible in the immediate future, but Republicans are now in a mood to accept significant changes in immigration law, for example the Dream Act, that are less than a general amnesty for all illegal residents.

Facing up to climate change

The massive damage inflicted by hurricane Sandy on New York, New Jersey, and New England reinforces a realization that global warming and climate change are a grim reality. The New York Times recently published a sobering assessment by scientists titled, "Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines," (Nov. 25) warning east coast cities, including Norfolk, of what to expect as coastal waters rise five feet above current levels during the 21st century. Much of their land will disappear.

How best to cope with violent changes in world weather patterns? Without question, this task should be given a high priority by federal and state governments and Americans in general. A burning question is what individual families should do to lessen the effects of these violent storms. Dealing with the effects of Sandy is not unlike coping with the impact of 9-11 in New York City. Fortunately, America has so far been spared another 9-11. But we are not likely to avoid more frequent violent storms like Sandy.

File last modified on Monday, 10-DEC-2012 10:31 AM EST

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