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7th Jan, 2009

Transitions: What Role Is Presidential Transition Playing in the Middle East

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I am going to raise a question no one seems to want to ask: did Israel and Hamas pick this time to engage in their current war because they knew the United States was between administrations and would make no major moves to resolve things?

As I read through accounts of the crisis the United States is notably absent. For example, Time world news reports:

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been touring the region, and plans to take Hamas’ cease-fire demands to the U.N. Security Council this week.

The article goes on to surmise that Turkey could play a major role in settling the conflict.

Just after New Year’s there were several reports that France was seeking to push for a cease fire. French President President Nicolas Sarkozy is the first major leader to actually journey to the Middle East since the conflict started. As I write this a report has come over the wire that Sarkozy has claimed that Israel and Hamas have accepted a truce plan for Gaza.

The Associated Press states Sarkozy issued the following statement on his return form the Middle East:

[He} strongly welcomes the acceptance by Israel and the Palestinian Authority of the French-Egyptian plan presented yesterday by (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak.

Skeptics note that missing from the statement is any mention of Hamas or acceptance of the plan by them.

Is the Timing of this Conflict Deliberate?

You cannot help but ask whether both sides chose to escalate this conflict at a moment of strategic weakness on the part of the United States. Israel and Hamas know that this country is in a time of transition where it is doubtful the United States would take any bold actions.

Some Middle East experts believe this is the case. The New York Times reports:

Many Middle East experts say Israel timed its move against Hamas, which began with airstrikes on Dec. 27, 24 days before Mr. Bush leaves office, with the expectation of such backing in Washington. Israeli officials could not be certain that President-elect Barack Obama, despite past statements of sympathy for Israel’s right of self-defense, would match the Bush administration’s unconditional endorsement.

One should not put the onus only on Israel. We forget this began on December 19 when Hamas declared an end to an Egyptian-mediated truce with Israel and began stepping up its rocket attacks.

Where is the US?

The point of all the reports about attempts to mediate the crisis is that the United States seems largely to be sitting on the sidelines while others struggle to resolve the crisis. Yesterday’s Security Council meeting is prime evidence of this. None other than Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported:

During a high-level meeting of the UN Security Council on January 6, foreign ministers from several European countries and Arab states called for an immediate Israeli cease-fire.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, presiding over the council meeting, also urged an end to Hamas’s rocket attacks against southern Israel and the smuggling of weapons from Egypt into Gaza.

Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, expressed the deepening frustration over the inability of the Security Council to stop the bloodshed in Gaza, or at least to censure it.

What this country apparently has been doing is to do nothing. The AP reports that the United States has been the major roadblock to the issuing of a Security Council resolution calling for a cease fire.

Several other council members, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations were closed, also said the U.S. was responsible for the council’s failure to issue a statement.

Asked what kind of resolution would be acceptable to the United States, U.S. deputy ambassador Alejandro Wolff said:

The important point to focus on here is establishing the understanding of what type of cease-fire we’re talking about and to ensure that it’s lasting, and to ensure that we don’t return to a situation that led to the current situation.

To me this is a sign of administrative paralysis. That a deputy ambassador should be issuing a public statement about this serious crisis speaks words about the Bush Administration’s lack of positive action. Where is the voice our UN ambassador? Where is the voice of the State Department and Condoleeza Rice? Most of all, where is the voice of George Bush?

Bush’s first public statement about the crisis came on Monday when he said:

I understand Israel’s desire to protect itself, and that the situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas.

This sounds like one of those waffling answers candidates give during Presidential debates, not a constructive contribution to ending the crisis. With less than two weeks left in office, the current administration appears to have decided to punt on this one.

As for Barack Obama he has stated he is not President until after the inauguration and so has no business making foreign policy while George Bush still sits in the Oval Office.  Obama told reporters:

When it comes to foreign affairs, it is particularly important to adhere to the principle of one president at a time, because there are delicate negotiations taking place right now, and we can’t have two voices coming out of the United States when you have so much at stake.

Are Two Voices Better Than No Voices?

Frankly, two voices would be better than no voices. Right now the conflict continues with Israeli and Palestinian civilians caught in the middle.  One Gaza resident told MSNBC:

There is no water, no electricity, no medicine. It’s hard to survive. Gaza is destroyed.

Included in that destruction have been a Gaza mosque, a UN-run school, an unoccupied Israeli kindergarten, homes and buildings of both Palestinians and Israelis, and a death toll of over 500, half of whom the United Nations estimates are civilians.

Maxwell Gaylard, United Nations humanitarian affairs coordinator said that the conflict was:

By any measure is a humanitarian crisis.

Yet this humanitarian crisis has the current administration and the incoming administration apparently hamstrung by the issue of Presidential transition.

The Issue of Presidential Transitions

This crisis has brought to a head a long-standing issue and little-discussed problem in our current electoral system. The so-called transition period threatens to become a time of inaction, a time when neither incoming or outgoing administration wishes to make waves.

The reality is in practical terms neither has any real power. As the Bush countdown meter continues to register the number of seconds left in the President’s term he has become not merely a lame duck but a crippled one with little ability to influence even his own Party let alone the opposition.

Meanwhile the Obama team is scrambling to fill vacancies so it can hit the ground running after the inauguration. It still has many important posts to fill including that of FCC Commissioner. The Bush people have left such a mess that I can imagine the Obama team staring at the equivalent of a devastated house asking, “Where do we start?”

Obviously two major issues will need to occupy their immediate attention: the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should Osama bin Laden seek to welcome the new President with some nasty surprise you can add that to the list.  So although it sounds cruel, the reality is that the Obama team has a lot on its plate.

It’s not just the conflict in Gaza that is on hold, but issues such as the economic crisis. The Bush Administration appears to have taken the same perspective Herbert Hoover did in 1932, when he refused to seriously work with the incoming Roosevelt Administration on the Great Depression.  That famous photograph of a grumpy-looking Herbert Hoover riding in a car with Franklin Roosevelt on Inauguration Day symbolizes the predicament. A similar photo exists of Woodrow Wilson riding with a glum William Howard Taft.

In December, the Guardian headlined, “Bush sneaks through host of laws to undermine Obama,” noting it would take months to undo the damage which ranges from coal waste dumping to power stations in National Parks. In fact this outgoing administration will probably set a record for s–called “midnight regulations.”

So rather than collaborate, the Bush people appear to be trashing the house before they leave it. This, of course, means the Obama plate gets heaped even higher, which I’m sure is exactly what the Bush Administration has in mind. With issues such as Iraq and the economy demanding immediate responses, who is going to have time to focus on coal waste dumping?

Is the Bush Administration Deliberately Undermining Obama?

This administration appears to be playing the role of sour losers. Instead of graciously admitting they lost, George Bush and his team (this has all the earmarks of one Dick Cheney) are rushing through regulations designed to hamstring Barack Obama as well as reward the corporations that have supported Bush.

The Guardian runs down a list of some of these:

There is a long list of other new regulations that have gone onto the books. One lengthens the number of hours that truck drivers can drive without rest. Another surrenders government control of rerouting the rail transport of hazardous materials around densely populated areas and gives it to the rail companies.

One more chips away at the protection of endangered species. Gun control is also weakened by allowing loaded and concealed guns to be carried in national parks. Abortion rights are hit by allowing healthcare workers to cite religious or moral grounds for opting out of carrying out certain medical procedures.

There are so many changes that the media cannot even keep track of them. It would not surprise me that some of the time and energy of the incoming Obama team is focused on just keeping track of these changes and then pondering how to deal with them.

What it means is that this new President is going to have a heck of a time just undoing the damage these “midnight regulations” have done.  Time spent on this will draw away from time that could be spent more constructively, especially in the middle of a crisis. In my last essay I wrote about the theme of blowing things up. Well, this administration’s last minute regulations are a great example of that. Instead of walking into a smooth transition, Barack Obama will be walking into a minefield.

There Has to Be a Better Way

Now we can add the Israel-Hamas conflict to the list. All you can do is to shake your head and wonder whether there has to be a better way to manage Presidential transitions. In this world with its global interconnections and hyperdrive speed, to leave this country leaderless from November to January is far too long. Throw into that the stubborn vindictiveness that has characterized the Bush Administration and you have a recipe for disaster.

What if instead of the Israel-Hamas conflict we had the equivalent of the 9/11 attack or the economy took a sudden nose dive? We currently have nothing in place that would allow for both the incoming and outgoing administrations to work out a common solution.

Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University who studies presidential transitions, told the Times Mr. Obama’s predicament exemplified the treacherous weeks between election and inauguration, and the way inspiring visions inevitably give way before unexpected events.

She added:

On a campaign, you control what you talk about and when you talk about it. When you begin governing, you have to respond to what happens in the world.

Kumar currently heads the White House Transition Project, whose web site is a treasure trove of transition information.  In one paper, Kumar notes:

An effective transition buys a new presidential administration the chance to take advantage of the opportunities that exist at the beginning of an administration and reduce the hazards that inevitably lie in wait.

Kumar and her colleagues have done an admirable job of documenting past transitions and drafting recommendations to make future ones more effective, but they still have few answers for situations that arise suddenly, such as the current conflict in the Middle East, and for administrations such as the current one that are determined to force an agenda through at the last minute even if it hamstrings the incoming President. Kumar all but admits this:

Even though there is a demonstrated difference that some things work and others do not, it is still difficult for administrations to do the kind of preelection and preinauguration work that pays off in the early months.

Solutions?

First, it is time we closed the loophole in the law that allows for “midnight regulations.” As it has with so much else, the Bush Administration has taken what previous administrations enacted to absurd levels. Maybe, in a perverse way, some good will come of that, forcing a change in the law so these shenanigans do not occur in the future.

Second, there needs to be a serious consideration of enlarging the functions of the so-called transition team from the incoming and outgoing administrations. Currently these teams try to ease such roadblocks as security clearances for new officials, but perhaps the transition needs to be extended to policy matters.

While it is wrong for the transition team to micro-manage policy during the transition period, there should be some consideration given to serious crises. We cannot have a repeat of the stand-off between Hoover and FDR nor can we have a repeat of the current Israeli-Hamas conflict.  Most of all, we need to be proactive, anticipating future crises.

If, in fact, both Hamas and Israel timed this crisis because of the transition period, then that should be both a warning and a stimulus to preventative action.  When faced with such crises the team needs to put partisan and ideological differences aside and work for the good of the nation.

I leave it to the experts to work out the details, but the Hamas-Israeli conflict may have done us a favor if we are smart enough to take advantage of it.  Dr. Kumar and her associates need to devote their energies to some concrete proposals that will prevent the possibility of a future train wreck.

The future of this republic depends on it. We have been made painfully aware of a major fault in our democratic process. Now is the time to fix it.

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