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


MARCH 2015

Are we headed for an armed confrontation in the Middle East, or are we moving toward accommodation with Iran? A recent confluence of events could lead in either direction.

The ISIL threat

Expansion of ISIL's (Islamic State) brutal rule beyond its home base in Syria into Iraq, Libya, and potentially the entire Middle East, thrusts this Islamic terrorist network into a dangerous threat that the international community must confront. Its deadly attacks in France, Belgium, Denmark, and potentially in Britain, have shocked Europeans into an acute awareness of their vulnerability. Although President Obama cautioned the media against playing up ISIL's propaganda photos of horrific beheadings of hostages, the competition among TV networks for viewers' attention seems overriding.

War powers

Congress's current hearings on granting the president authority to use military force against ISIL, in Syria, Iraq. other parts of the Middle East, and in Africa, highlight a growing debate about how deeply U.S. forces should be deployed to meet the ISIL threat. American drones and aircraft are already bombing its strongholds in Iraq and Syria while U.S. advisers and intelligence units strive to rebuild a demoralized Iraqi army.

However, the president wants Congress to limit executive authority to deploy ground forces in the Middle East; his aides cite the experience of Iraq where ground forces became embroiled in a civil war after they captured Baghdad and crushed the Saddam Hussein regime. Obama and his national security team argue that local governments must themselves provide "boots on the ground" while the U.S. and its allies use air and naval power to support them. U.S. leaders are persuaded that the use of ground troops would lead to a wider, costlier Middle East war.

Netanyahu's intervention

The Israeli prime minister's foray into the U.S. foreign policy debate on Iran was dramatized by an ill-timed invitation for him to address a joint session of Congress on the perils of a nuclear arms agreement with Iran. He urged Congress to reject an impending deal with Iran and instead increase economic sanctions. The Israeli leader thinks a ten-year freeze on Iran's uranium-enrichment program poses a vital threat to Israel's security and must be opposed, by force if necessary. He makes no secret of his disdain for President Obama's Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to negotiate with Iran. He also clearly hopes Republicans will regain the White House in 2016.

Obama and Kerry are determined to pursue a negotiated agreement with Iran because they're convinced a 10-year suspension of its nuclear enrichment program stands a better chance of preventing a nuclear armed Iran than does the threat of military action by either Israel or the United States. They challenge Netanyahu to describe his alternative to negotiations because they suspect that military action is his likely preference. Some administration officials hope that a nuclear agreement with Iran could also lead to cooperation in the fight against ISIL.

Republican interventionists

Leading congressional Republicans, among them John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and several presidential aspirants, including Marco Rubio and Rick Perry, demand that America's defense budget be substantially increased and its military forces expanded to meet growing crises abroad. They point to Ukraine, Syria, and Iran as dangerous threats, and to China's encroachments in East Asia. They are joined by defense hawks from the Reagan and Gorge W. Bush administrations, among them Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, who were high DOD policy makers in the 1980s and early 2000s. If the interventionists' influence grows during the coming year, will Republicans come to be known as the "war party," especially if they reject a nuclear arms deal with Iran and advocate support for military measures? Rand Paul is among a few Republican presidential hopefuls who voices opposition to the interventionists' view.

These issues will be hotly debated in Congress and the media during the coming months. Thoughtful Americans would do well to listen carefully to the arguments, on both sides, and make their views clear to congressional leaders and letters to the editorial pages of newspapers. It would be a tragedy of major proportions for the United States to be drawn into another major war in the Middle East, where the dangers of escalation far outweigh any gains that might be achieved in combating a continuing revolution in the Arab world.

File last modified on Monday, 02-FEB-2015 10:51 AM EST

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