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


JUNE 2014

When, and for what reasons, should the United States use military force outside the United States? That's the key question President Obama addressed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 28. Press criticism that followed is indicative of a growing split in Washington between idealists and realists on foreign policy objectives.

Three leading newspapers expressed disappointment that Obama didn't show more willingness to exert U.S. power abroad. President Obama misses a chance on foreign affairs, complained the New York Times, while the Washington Post, in an editorial titled Tying America's Hands, charged that he retrenched U.S. global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many U.S. allies and encouraged some adversaries. The paper lamented that Obama delivered a big speech instead of adjusting his policy.

Several influential columnists joined the critics. David Ignatius, in his commentary Repeating the Same Mistake, wrote that Obama hasn't digested some of the critical lessons of his presidency. Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer dismissed the speech as Emptiness at West Point. Fred Hiatt, in a column titled A Values-Free Foreign Policy, charged that Obama had ruled out intervening in places like Syria and Sudan even though massive casualties in civil wars challenged U.S. values.

Is this criticism justified? Let's examine what Obama said in an excerpt from his West Point speech. After first asserting that the United States will act unilaterally to defend the United States and its allies, the president made this declaration about U.S. policy on issues that do not directly threaten the United States.

When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our consciences or push the world in a more dangerous direction, but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action because, he added, collective action is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.

Syria was clearly in the president's thoughts. He recalled that when he threatened to use force in 2013 to punish the murderous Assad regime for using chemical weapons, America's close ally, Britain, declined to join him after Prime Minister David Cameron failed to muster parliamentary support. U.S. congressional leaders told Obama that he would have difficulty winning support for military action.

Much of the criticism the president drew over statements about the use of force centers on his unwillingness to employ military assistance or U.S. forces to support freedom and democracy movements overseas when U.S. security is not directly at stake. He addressed that point:

To say that we have an interest in pressing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.

Here Obama had Iraq and Vietnam clearly in mind, two wars that civilian leaders initially predicted would be short. The current VA scandal in Washington over veterans health care highlights the continuing price that America pays for those wars.

Ukraine is becoming a test case of what some are calling an Obama Doctrine. This is a country in eastern Europe, bordering Russia, that is not a member of NATO or the European Union. But its new president, Petro Poroshenko, says he wants to orient Ukraine's foreign policy toward the West and the EU. However, as a successful businessman and political realist, Poroshenko understand that Ukraine needs good relations with Russia, which supplies most of its energy needs and much of its trade.

Vladimir Putin, Russia's ambitious president, wants to ensure that Ukraine, a longtime ally, does not integrate with western Europe and uses Russian agents and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to detach part of the country from Kiev's control, as he did earlier in Crimea.

A crucial test of the so-called Obama Doctrine will come if Ukraine formally asks for military assistance to retake control of its eastern provinces. Obama's view is that America has no vital security interest at stake in Ukraine, and that economic and military assistance must have support from the EU countries to make it effective against Russian pressure.

Critics ask, why should Washington's hands be tied when Ukraine's democratic government asks for help to defend its territory and democratic values? Why should it be denied military assistance even if Europe is opposed? The answer is that providing military assistance entails military trainers and advisers. This is a slippery slope toward armed intervention. Is this what Obama's critics are suggesting?

File last modified on Friday, 5-JUN-2014 12:07 PM EST

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