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



The risk of foreign policy crises emerging during presidential election campaigns is well-known, and 2016 isn't likely to be an exception. Incidents in the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf, Northern Syria, and Eastern Europe could escalate quickly, testing the president's leadership in defending U.S. interests abroad.

Three crises in presidential campaigns over the last sixty years demonstrated the risks, in 1960, 1980 and 2000. In each case, a president's reputation was damaged and America's influence abroad suffered.

In 1960, Dwight Eisenhower hoped to cap his successful eight years in office with a state visit to Moscow. Instead, the visit was cancelled when President Nikita Khrushchev chose to embarrass Eisenhower by dramatizing the failure of a U-2 spy mission over the USSR. The incident contributed to John Kennedy's election that year.

Twenty years later, in 1980, Jimmy Carter failed to win reelection in part because of his failure to force Iran to release fifty-two American diplomats taken as prisoners in a state-sanctioned attack on the U.S. Embassy. And in October 2000, Bill Clinton failed to act when terrorists in Yemen attacked the USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer, inflicting seventeen deaths and nearly forty casualties on U.S. sailors. Clinton's inaction in this case helped George W. Bush win the presidential election a few weeks later.

In each of these cases, America's reputation abroad was damaged. US.-Soviet relations turned cool, despite Eisenhower's successful efforts at d├ętente, and U.S. influence in the Middle East and Europe suffered as a result of Carter's failure to respond forcefully to Iran's hostile action, which many viewed as a warlike act. Clinton's inaction after the Cole attack was also viewed as a sign of U.S. weakness.

What dangers does President Obama face before he leaves office on January 20? Here are four, any of which could lead to an armed conflict.

Russia's Vladimir Putin is orchestrating a propaganda offensive against Ukraine and the Baltic States designed to stir up opposition to their governments. He's also building up Russian forces on Ukraine's border and consolidating his hold on two breakaway eastern provinces. Russian aircraft use intimidating tactics over the Baltic Sea. NATO has warned about potential armed clashes there, and it has dispatched troops to the three Baltic States and Poland to reassure them.

Meanwhile, China continues to press toward its goal to be dominant power in Southeast Asia, specifically in the strategic South China Sea. Chinese ships and aircraft employ dangerous tactics against U.S. and allied ships transiting that waterway. Any of these could trigger a clash that leads to the risk of war. A similar crisis could erupt in Northeast Asia if China does not restrain North Korea's nuclear blandishments against South Korea and Japan.

Iran's harassment of U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf is another test for Obama, even though Iran doesn't pose a military challenge of the same magnitude as China. But its dangerous naval tactics in the Gulf could result in armed clashes and heightened tensions in the Middle East.

Turkey has emerged as a new and serious challenge to U.S. hopes to destroy ISIS in Syria and Iraq and end Syria's civil war. President Recep Erdogan, who urged the U.S. four years ago to intervene in Syria, has sent his own troops across the border to counter Syrian Kurds, who Turkey views as a threat to its internal security. President Obama lost influence with this NATO ally following an abortive coup against Erdogan last month. The danger now is that Erdogan could trigger a clash with Russia if his troops move toward the Syrian city of Aleppo.

* * * *

How would Barack Obama respond to any of these incipient crises? Would he temporize the way Jimmy Carter did in 1980, or leave it to his successor as Bill Clinton did in 2000?

In his last months in the White House, Obama and his family surely are concerned about his legacy as president. He entered office in 2009 determined to end two costly and controversial wars, and to avoid new ones. Vladimir Putin no doubt has concluded that Obama wants to avoid armed conflicts and rely instead on diplomacy to manage U.S. foreign policy... The leaders of China, Iran, North Korea and even Turkey have calculated that Obama will not act.

And therein lies the danger of miscalculation. If confronted with a serious threat to U.S. interests abroad, Obama may decide that his legacy will be enhanced if he shows strength instead of weakness in the face of danger. The next four months will be testing time for this president.

File last modified on Monday, 12-SEP-2015 10:52 AM EST

Feedback to Author