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

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Donald Nuechterlein

IRAN AND CHINA: OBAMA'S STRATEGIC CHOICE

APRIL 2015

The nuclear agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China reached with Iran is a calculated risk by these countries that Iran's Islamic regime is prepared to pursue a peaceful role in the Persian Gulf and wider Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states worry that Iran won't abandon its drive to become a major power and eventually replace the United States as the region's hegemon. Israel has no doubts about the outlook: it's convinced that Iran will use detente with the U.S. and Europe to expand its power in the Middle East and threaten Israel's survival. In its editorial April 5, the Washington Post called the nuclear agreement "a deal without stability" and urged the Obama administration to "integrate the accord with checks on Iran's ambitions."

Hailing the preliminary agreement with Iran, the president asserted that every country in the Middle East, including Israel, will be more secure when a final accord is reached by June 30. That assumption is challenged in Congress, in Israel, and by Persian Gulf states.

Although risk of conflict with Iran may be receding, China presents a more serious potential for trouble as Beijing builds a strong navy and expands its military presence in the South China Sea. The issue was highlighted by a Wall Street Journal feature titled, "As China expands its navy,..,Washington is divided over whether Beijing should be viewed as a naval partner or potential adversary."(March 31)

China's growing naval presence in a strategic waterway contested by Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines is a threat to their security and potentially to international shipping through the South China Sea. But China may also be viewed as a U.S. partner in providing stability in a region that produced the Vietnam War. A similar question is posed in Northeast Asia where Japan and South Korea view China's growing power with apprehension.

The challenge for Obama and his national security team is deciding whether the United States should continue to exercise a dominant role in the Middle East and Western Pacific, or whether it's time for Washington to step back a few paces and urge other countries to share peace-keeping operations, especially with ground forces. It's similar to the issue Richard Nixon faced in 1971 when the U.S. was withdrawing troops from Vietnam. He proclaimed the "Guam Doctrine" that called on those countries who wanted U.S. help to provide the ground troops, while America would use air and naval power to deter aggressors. Nixon was also negotiating a d├ętente arrangement with Beijing that eventually encouraged China to end its twenty-year isolation from the world.

Tom Friedman, in a New York Times column last week titled, "The Obama Doctrine and Iran" (April 6), recounted an Oval Office interview with President Obama. He insisted that negotiations were a better means than economic sanctions in dealing with countries like Iran and Cuba. "America," he said, "with its overwhelming power needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities, like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer."

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who sits on the Senate's Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, stated in a CNN interview April 6 that it isn't necessary to trust Iran in order to verify that it doesn't violate the accord now being finalized. He favors the president's proposed agreement but wants the Senate to express its approval or disapproval after having a full public debate.

Two years ago Barack Obama declared that America's long-range economic and strategic interests lay in East Asia. He said the defense department would gradually reduce U.S. forces in Europe and the Middle East and expand American power in the Western Pacific to counter China's assertion of its new influence. Beijing's launching of a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a potential competitor of the U.S.-dominated World Bank gives notice that China intends to be Asia's leading economic power in the near future.

In view of America's strategic shift toward East Asia, now underway, the leaders of Israel and other Middle East states need to understand that U.S. national interests are not the same as theirs. It's urgent that Congress debates this issue and offers its assessment of where U.S. vital interests lie in the next twenty years.

File last modified on Monday, 13-APR-2015 9:54 AM EST

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