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



Voters should know before November 8 who Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will pick to fill three crucial national security posts if they are elected president: Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Director of National Intelligence. The reality is that we elect not just a president but also a team of their appointees who will lead large agencies that carry out government policies vitally affecting our national security.

It's more urgent this year because we choose a Commander-in Chief of the armed forces whose support a president needs to protect the country's interests abroad. .This point was underlined by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a Wall Street Journal commentary, "Sizing Up the Next Commander-in-Chief." (Sept. 17)

Gates' credibility is enhanced because he's the only person who served both Rep0blican and Democratic presidents in that post. He first describes the likely foreign policy crises the new president will face and then makes this assessment of Donald Trump's qualifications to be Commander-in-Chief:

"Mr. Trump is also willfully ignorant about the rest of the world, about our military and its capabilities, and about the government itself. He distains expertise and experience while touting his own—such as his claim that that he knows more about ISIS than America's generals. He has no clue about the difference between negotiating a business deal and negotiating with sovereign nations."

Which raises this central question: What kind of person would Donald Trump pick to be Secretary of Defense and to manage a department of roughly two million military and civilian personnel? How capable will he in supervising deployment of military forces to dangerous areas if hostilities appear likely? In a recent interview, Trump said he'd fire most of the current top generals and admirals and replace them. But with whom? Our top military leaders are the Joint Chiefs of Staff; they are approved by the Senate and serve fixed terms. It's essential, therefore, that we know who Trump has in mind to fill the post of SecDef.

Two other top posts are Secretary of State (SecState), and Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2012, and is better positioned to select people for this department who are well-qualified to carry out her foreign and defense priorities. But Clinton too needs to identify the persons she thinks would be well-suited to fill all three national security posts.

Before Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, many skeptics worried that he lacked knowledge and experience in foreign policy. One of his first moves was to nominate General Alexander Haig to be Secretary of State. Reagan knew this experienced professional had served in high positions at the White House and the Pentagon, and that he would reassure America's allies that foreign policy would be in competent hands. Who will Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton select to fill this top cabinet position?

Reagan brought to Washington a team of competent p professionals from California, where he served two terms as governor. Among them was Caspar Weinberger who had previously held top positions in the U.S. government. Reagan appointed him secretary of defense, and the military services respected his expertise and leadership.

Who would Donald Trump select as defense secretary to reassure U.S. allies and caution Russia's and China's leaders about pushing their armed encroachments into Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia? And who will he select as his top diplomat to carry out his policies in the next four years?

The hard reality is that voters are faced today with a choice in foreign policy between one candidate (Trump) who intends radical change in U.S. relations with the world, and another (Clinton) who will continue a foreign policy similar to what has prevailed under both Republican and Democratic presidents for half a century. We will soon learn whether a majority of Americans prefer a radical change in course.

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

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