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



After a summer of political entertainment provided by Cable TV, Congress and the president return to the serious business of governing. A momentous decision in U.S. foreign policy comes in the weeks ahead when the Senate votes on the nuclear deal that Secretary of State Kerry and five other foreign ministers negotiated with Iran in June. (On September 10,, the Senate voted to block a Republican-led effort to derail the president's nuclear deal with Iran.)

This is an "epochal moment" in U.S. foreign policy, as former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft characterized it. (Washington Post, Aug. 23) In many ways, the vote resembles the Senate's 1919 deliberation of President Woodrow Wilson's Peace Treaty with Germany, the Versailles agreement he had negotiated with British, French, and Italian leaders in Paris to contain Germany and build a new League of Nations.

At the time, Republicans controlled the Senate and weren't keen on the League of Nations provision because it committed the United States to the defense of Europe. Wilson, a re-elected Democrat, refused to negotiate the League issue with the Republicans and appealed to the country for support. In the end, the Senate failed to ratify the treaty by the required two-thirds majority. The rejection shocked Europe and led to America turning against international commitments, and it ushered in twenty years of isolationism in foreign policy.

Two other momentous foreign policy decisions occurred in 1948 and 1949. A Republican Senate approved the Marshall Plan to restore Europe after the devastation of World War II, and it ratified the North Atlantic Treaty which committed the United States to defend Western Europe against a menacing Soviet Union. In both cases, a Democratic president, Harry Truman, persuaded a Republican Senate that U.S. national interests in the postwar era required America to abandon isolationism and assume a leadership role in Western Europe.

Another important, although less pivotal, decision was made by the Senate in 1981 when President Reagan sought to build relations with oil-rich Saudi Arabia. He proposed selling it AWACS surveillance aircraft and other military equipment to help it defend the Middle East against the Soviet Union.

The deal was denounced by Israel's government and its lobbying organization in Washington; they said it threatened Israel's military superiority in the region. Reagan was surprised by Israel's reaction and delayed sending a request to Congress. Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin, then visited Washington then personally and lobbied Congress against the sale. In the end, Reagan persuaded enough Republicans to support him and the sale went through. But he made this strong case for the president's primacy in foreign policy:

"As president, it's my duty to define and defend our broad national security objectives. The Congress, of course, plays an important role in this process. And while we must always take into account the vital interests of our allies, American security interests must remain our internal responsibility. It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy." (emphasis added)

In 2015, Barack Obama asserts the same principle in foreign policy that Reagan did in 1981, that the president has primary responsibility for defining U.S. national interests while Congress has an advisory role. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, like Begin in 1981, has strongly urged Congress to reject the deal. But enough Senate Democrats have agreed to support the president so that the deal will not be blocked by Republican opponents.

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Middle East expert, argues in an article titled "On the Iran Nuclear Deal, Yes, but..." that even though the policy has serious deficiencies, its primary objective -- to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons for at least fifteen years -- makes the agreement worthwhile. He assumes Iran will continue to support insurgent groups around the Middle East, but he is sure the U.S. will bolster the defenses of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Israel to meet this challenge. (Wall Street Journal, Aug.29)

My view is that America faces a major opportunity to make the Middle East a less dangerous place than it has been since the 1970s. Taking nuclear weapons off the table for at least fifteen years provides time to deal effectively with the Palestinian question, the disintegration of Syria, and the long struggle against ISIS. Rejecting the Iran deal, negotiated by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China, would be a tragedy not unlike the Senate's rejection of the Versailles Treaty in 1919.

File last modified on Thursday, 10-SEP-2015 10:54 AM EST

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