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


JUNE 2021

Americans are not noted for their patience. We want to solve problems, not live with them. But sometimes it's best to be patient, to wait for events to unfold instead of trying to control them. The Taiwan issue with China is an example. Ukraine's struggle with Russia is another. A third is Iran's threat to build nuclear weapons, and the newest was Israel's effort to crush Palestinian resistance in Gaza.

Josef Stalin

A classic example of waiting for leadership change occurred in 1953 when Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, died at age 74. He had ruled the Soviet Union for nearly forty years. Now the logjam in relations with the West opened up and President Eisenhower took advantage of the resulting vacuum to press new Soviet leaders for d├ętente in the Cold War.

The "Spirit of Geneva," as it was known, lasted until 1960 when an American spy plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over Russia. The new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, chose to exploit the case for propaganda advantage and cancelled a Moscow summit with Eisenhower. Ike's successor, John Kennedy, faced a new Cold War.

Mao Zedong

Another example of patience in dealing with adversaries involved the death in 1976 of China's long-term dictator, Mao Zedong, at age 82. Mao ruled China from 1949, when Communist troops captured Beijing and declared the Peoples Republic of China. Mao tested U.S. policy in Asia by supporting North Korea's invasion of the south in 1950 and eventually sent Chinese troops to North Korea to battle U.S. forces under Douglas MacArthur. China's relations with Washington remained frozen until President Nixon visited China in 1972.

Nixon decided that Mao, then 78, would not live much longer and decided to wait for new leaders. That paid off when Deng Xiaoping gained control of the Communist Party and set China on a long-term path for economic growth. This policy lasted forty years and lifted China out of poverty to become an economic superpower. Like the Soviet Union, the death of an aged dictator brought in new leaders who stimulated internal change. Now both countries are led by aspiring dictators, China by Xi Jinping, 67, and Russia by Vladimir Putin, 69. Neither looks ready to die or retire. Patience this time may take longer.

In two other cases, Iran and Israel, Joe Biden's patience is being put to serious tests, the first with Iran's Islamic regime and the second with a brash prime minister of Israel.

Iran's Ayatollah

In 1979 Washington broke diplomatic relations with Tehran after hundreds of young radicals invaded the U.S. Embassy and took fifty-two diplomatic personnel prisoners. They were held for fourteen months under deplorable conditions. Iran's Revolutionary Islamic Republic, headed by virtual dictator, Ayatollah Khomeini, condoned the attack and U.S.-Iranian relations remained frozen for forty-two years. Meanwhile, Iran worked to build nuclear weapons.

Although the Islamic regime holds elections, only candidates cleared by the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei can run for office. All major decisions in foreign and national security policy are made by the Ayatollah; not the elected government.

In 2015, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, with five other powers, concluded a limited nuclear agreement with Iran. But in 2018 President Trump cancelled U.S. participation and imposed tough economic sanctions on Iran. He argued that the agreement didn't commit Iran to renunciation of nuclear weapons or curtail its efforts to undermine governments in Iraq and Yemen and send troops to bolster Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad.

Biden hopes that when Ayatollah Khamenei, now 82, passes from the scene, Iran will select new leaders, who will moderate the hard-line policies in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Will patience pay off with Iran?

B. Netanyahu

Israel is a different challenge for the Biden foreign policy team. It's a thriving democracy but its current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, strongly disagrees with Biden's policy on Palestinian statehood and negotiations with Iran. Netanyahu had a close relationship with the Trump administration, but now finds Washington again joining multinational talks with Tehran. Netanyahu, known as Bibi, initially resisted Biden's call for a cease-fire in his war against Gaza. But under increasing pressure from Washington, he agreed to a cease-fire brokered by Egypt's President Abdel Fateh el-Sisi. Netanyahu has no intention of accepting Biden's goal of a two-state solution. The president hopes for new leadership in Jerusalem, after twelve years of Netanyahu's rule. But his efforts to pressure U.S. policy on Iran are unrelenting, and Biden's new talk with Tehran is firmly resisted.

Will patience pay off for Biden on a change in Israel's leadership? Or, could Bibi possibly find a way to outlast Biden?

File last modified on Tuesday, 01-JUN-2021 07:25 AM EST

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