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


MAY 2016

Only four presidents since World War II served two full terms; Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and George W. Bush in the 2000s. All four had a difficult final year in office. as a foreign policy crisis affected their legacies.

Eisenbower, a war hero, had expected to cap his eight years in the White House with a 1960 visit to Moscow amd concluding a U.S.-Soviet d├ętente relationship with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. His hopes were shattered when Gary Powers' spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory. Khrushchev used the incident to embarrass Eisenhower and in the end canceled his Moscow visit.

Reagan's second term was impacted by a scandal involving the diversion of funds from the sale of arms to Iran to aid rebel forces, known as contras, in Nicaragua. After thorough investigation, Reagan was found not personally aware of the Iran-Contra scheme, but three of his White House aides were found guilty. The scandal dogged Reagan into his final year, 1988, and tarnished his legacy.

Clinton's last year in office, 2000, was marred by an al-Qaeda suicide attack on the USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer in Aden Harbor, Yemen. It caused hundreds of U.S. casualties and crippled the ship. Al-Qaeda had found sanctuary in Afghanistan where it trained hardened terrorists for attacks abroad. In 1998 Clinton ordered missile attacks on those training camps, but his failure to respond forcefully to the attack on the Cole drew widespread criticism at home.

Bush's final year, 2008, was impacted by the financial shocks of September 15, which caused ripple effects across Europe and Asia. His legacy was tarnished by failure of his 2003 intervention in Iraq, and charges that he misled the country about the reasons for war. Bush avoided a Vietnam-type collapse in Iraq by ordering a successful troop "surge" in 2007, which restored security in Baghdad and permitted Iraq's government to continue functioning.

Barack Obama will be fortunate to avoid foreign policy reverses in 2016 that would adversely impact his legacy. Let's look at potential crises.


Vladimir Putin builds up Russian forces near the Ukrainian border and recently harassed U.S. and allied warships defending NATO's flank in the Baltic. Lat week NATO announced that it will dispatch 4,000 troops to Poland and the Baltic States to bolster defenses. Britain will contribute one battalion (1000 troops) and, after prodding by President Obama, Germany agreed to send another battalion, a move that warns Putin that NATO is united in confronting his aggressive moves in the east.


Southeast Asia is an even more dangerous area of conflict. China's ambition to dominate the South China Sea area, one of the world's most strategic waterways, escalated recently when the U.S. sent aircraft to observe Chinese survey vessels in disputed waters known as Scarborough Shoal, claimed by the Philippines, Beijing called it an "intrusion" by U.S. forces into Chinese territory, and promptly cancelled a Hong King port visit by the aircraft carrier John Stennis. If China attempts to build up Scarborough Shoal as it did the Spratlys two years ago, it would be a clear threat to international commerce in this vital waterway and put the U.S. on a collision course with China.


The Islamic Republic has sought for ten years to turn Iraq into an ally and bring about withdrawal of U.S influence in the Persian Gulf region. Vice President Joe Biden made a rushed visit to Baghdad two weeks ago to show support for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is under strong pressure from radical Shiite groups to resign. If Abadi is forced from office by pro-Iran Shiite forces, Washington will need to consider whether Iraq is a lost cause and find other ways to fight ISIS. That would be a major blow to Obama's legacy.

Critics, both some Republicans and Democrats say Russia's and China's belligerent moves in Europe and Asia result from their calculation that Barack Obama, after seven years in office, has demonstrated his aversion to using force to counter hostile moves. Diplomacy has its limits, they argue.

Presidential election years encourage foreign powers to test the United States to see how far they can push, because the president is viewed as a lame duck. It's a time, as history shows when a president's reputation can be damaged by failure to meet serious challenges.

Obama will surely be tested this year. The question is whether he will willing to face up firmly to these challenges.

File last modified on Wednesday, 4-MAY-2015 10:04 AM EST

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