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



Pundits and political scientists have sought ways to describe Barack Obama's reluctance to use troops in Libya and Syria, and his grudging acceptance of the need to retain US forces in Afghanistan after he leaves office.

Roger Cohen, writing in The New York Times {Oct. 14}, offers this suggestion: "One way to define President Obama's foreign policy is as a Doctrine of Restraint. It is clear, not least to the Kremlin, that this president is skeptical of the efficacy of military force, wary of foreign interventions that may become long-term commitments" and that the era of American-imposed solutions is over. He thinks Obama sees the United States as "less an indispensible power than an indispensible partner," and is "talking down American power."

It is instructive to compare this view of Obama's foreign policy with the" doctrine" label that was attached to other presidents since World War II. Harry Truman and John Kennedy, for example, laid out expansive views of America's responsibility to defend freedom everywhere it was threatened, by Communism or other challenges to regional security.

The strategies of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton come closer to the policies of restraint, which characterize Obama's view.

Soon after becoming president in 1969, Nixon visited Vietnam to determine how best to carry out his pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from a costly, inconclusive conflict that most Americas had turned against. In a Guam press conference following his June visit, Nixon declared that the United States would no longer provide most of the defense of US allies and friends but would expect them to use their own ground troops. He called for partnership with other countries in pursuing peace-keeping abroad. This was called the Nixon Doctrine, and "Vietnamization" soon became a buzz word to describe his policy of relying on South Vietnam's army to defend its territory as U.S. troops withdrew.

Bill Clinton showed great reluctance to become involved in a Balkan crisis in 1995, which Europeans had proved incapable of resolving through diplomacy. At the urging of NATO allies, Clinton finally agreed to send 20,000 US troops, together with 20,000 other NATO forces, to bring a halt to Bosnia's brutal civil war which threatened the security of NATO's southern flank. Still, Clinton showed reluctance to be drawn into other local conflicts, in Africa and Asia.

Clinton summarized his cautious policy in February 1999 by declaring the United States could not defend against dangers in every part of the world; but that "where our values and interests are at stake and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so." This reflected his decision to intervene in Bosnia, but not in Ruanda where genocide had occurred. This was the Clinton Doctrine.

Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter earned the doctrine title as a result of their declarations regarding US policy in the Middle East. In January 1957, Eisenhower warned the Soviet Union against threats to the security of states in the region following the 1956 Suez Crisis. Carter warned Moscow in January 1980 against threatening the Persian Gulf area following a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a few months earlier. For Eisenhower and Carter, the Cold War was a powerful factor underlying their declarations of policy.

Barack Obama's recent policies in the Middle East reflect a caution similar to that displayed by Richard Nixon who too recognized the limits to US power. Now, following forty years of US dominance in the Middle East, Obama has concluded that extricating the United States from a potential quagmire is no less urgent than was Nixon's determination to withdraw from a real quagmire in Southeast Asia. Whether Obama's view should be called a doctrine, however, is debatable.

File last modified on Monday, 26-OCT-2015 9:54 AM EST

Feedback to Author