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.


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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You write: “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.”

“And our leaders will huff and puff and remind the world that Hamas originally broke the ceasefire. It didn’t. Israel broke it, first on 4 November when its bombardment killed six Palestinians in Gaza[1] and again on 17 November when another bombardment killed four more Palestinians.[2]”

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/05/israelandthepalestinians
[2] http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1051211.html

You write: “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”; “What this country apparently has been doing is to do nothing”; “To me this is a sign of administrative paralysis”; “This sounds like one of those waffling answers candidates give during Presidential debates”; “With less than two weeks left in office, the current administration appears to have decided to punt on this one.”

Sitting on the sidelines? Waffling? Punting? Administrative paralysis? “The United States late Saturday blocked approval of a U.N. Security Council statement calling for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel and expressing concern at the escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas” (AP). This is not “sitting on the sidelines,” this is the US administration going out of their way to stand against the rest of the Security Council member nations in BLOCKING any resolution calling for a ceasefire (forget about singling out the Israeli government for criticisim, much less condemnation).

And moreover, it’s been a (man-made) humanitarian crisis for years – decades now.

UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, writing in July 2007 (a plea for humanity well worth reading in full):

“For over four decades, ever since 1967, Gaza has been occupied by Israel in a manner that turned this crowded area into a cauldron of pain and suffering for the entire population on a daily basis, with more than half of Gazans living in miserable refugees camps and even more dependent on humanitarian relief to satisfy basic human needs. With great fanfare, under Sharon’s leadership, Israel supposedly ended its military occupation and dismantled its settlements in 2005. The process was largely a sham as Israel maintained full control over borders, air space, offshore seas, as well as asserted its military control of Gaza, engaging in violent incursions, sending missiles to Gaza at will on assassination missions that themselves violate international humanitarian law, and managing to kill more than 300 Gazan civilians since its supposed physical departure.”

And the US state has been quite directly complicit, as Falk goes on to explain:

“As unacceptable as is this earlier part of the story, a dramatic turn for the worse occurred when Hamas prevailed in the January 2006 national legislative elections. It is a bitter irony that Hamas was encouraged, especially by Washington, to participate in the elections to show its commitment to a political process (as an alternative to violence) and then was badly punished for having the temerity to succeed. These elections were internationally monitored under the leadership of the former American president, Jimmy Carter, and pronounced as completely fair. Carter has recently termed this Israeli/American refusal to accept the outcome of such a democratic verdict as itself ‘criminal.’”

Not to mention, you know, supplying them with most all of their weaponry.

You write: “Included in that destruction have been a Gaza mosque, a UN-run school” (two UN-run schools) “and a death toll of over 500 [now 680-plus] half of whom the United Nations estimates are civilians,” exactly ten of whom were Israeli – and, of those, three were Israeli soldiers killed by fellow Israeli soldiers. Let’s be clear, as a certain president-elect likes to say.

And furthermore: “When you get a leaflet saying ‘Leave your house. It’s about to be attacked. Go to safety,’ there is no safety in Gaza. Your listeners must realize that there is a large fence around Gaza. In conflicts, people grab their children and flee to safety. There’s no safety in Gaza today. There is nowhere for these people to flee, which is why we echo the words of the Secretary-General: ‘Stop the fighting.’”

Let’s be clear, indeed.

“If, in fact, both Hamas and Israel timed this crisis because of the transition period” – loaded wording; try “If, in fact, either Hamas or Israel timed this crisis because of the transition period.”

“When faced with such crises the team needs to put partisan and ideological differences aside and work for the good of the nation.”

What about for the dignity of human life and livelihood for all people?

Nor has Obama been “silent” on this massacre-in-progress. He repeatedly made his position explicitly clear during the campaign. In July, “[a]t a press conference in Sderot, following his visit to the Amar home, Mr. Obama said he endorses Israel’s right to defend itself against rockets. ‘If someone were sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do anything to stop it, Mr. Obama said.’”

There is much more of critical relevance that I could add here, but I’ll leave it there for now.

Know that I only comment because I because I care – as I’ve mentioned previously, I have a lot of respect for you and your blog, and your sense of context in other areas has been so thorough and illuminating.

One more thing, additional context of Obama’s “two daughters quote”:

“If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that,” he said there. “The state of Israel faces determined enemies who seek its destruction, but it also has a friend and ally in the United States that will always stand by the people of Israel.”


First I owe you an apology. Your excellent comments somehow became caught up in my spam filter. In part that is because your comments exemplify what I wish more people would do which is to really document your remarks. The spam program is set up to cull out comments with several quotes. To show you how this works yours was mixed in with one from someone directing readers to a site where they could get a $12,000 college loan no questions asked. Somehow I need to figure out how to deal with this.

Your first comment is certainly one of those most thought-provoking and documented pieces I have received. Your main point is that the U.S. is not just sitting on its hands, but that by blocking the Security Council resolution and other measures to bring about an end to the violence, it is prolonging the conflict.

Were I to right the piece today, after more indiscriminate attacks in which another UN worker was killed along with many more civilians I would use different language. However, I stand by my point, this government is taking no action to STOP the conflict.

Your one sentence says it all. Frankly I wish i had written it. I repeat it because I believe it is exactly what is missing from our nation’s response.

What about for the dignity of human life and livelihood for all people?

Your comment has prompted to me to think about a follow-up piece which will demand a bit of research. The question is whether our inaction is yet one last manifestation of the neocon philosophy that has caused so much trouble. Whatever their motivations, the Bush Administration has left yet another mess to clean up with this conflict which has further alienated not only people in the Middle East but across the world.

Thank you for your comment and for reminding me and others that the philosophy of the level playing field which motivates this blog needs to be applied to people everywhere.


Thanks for your reply.

Here are a couple other key starting points you might want to include in your research for a follow-up post (which I’m very heartened to hear you’re thinking about):

Penetrating context from Sara Roy, Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, speaking on this week’s episode of (the excellent) Behind the News with Doug Henwood here (her segment starts around 33 minutes in):

This Jan. 7th NYT op-ed by Rashid Khalidi, Professor of Arab Studies at Colombia:

What You Don’t Know About Gaza

Key quote:

« This war on the people of Gaza isn’t really about rockets. Nor is it about “restoring Israel’s deterrence,” as the Israeli press might have you believe. Far more revealing are the words of Moshe Yaalon, then the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, in 2002: “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.” »

Nir Rosen, writing in the Guardian:

Gaza: the logic of colonial power

« Normative rules are determined by power relations. Those with power determine what is legal and illegal. They besiege the weak in legal prohibitions to prevent the weak from resisting. For the weak to resist is illegal by definition. Concepts like terrorism are invented and used normatively as if a neutral court had produced them, instead of the oppressors. The danger in this excessive use of legality actually undermines legality, diminishing the credibility of international institutions such as the United Nations. It becomes apparent that the powerful, those who make the rules, insist on legality merely to preserve the power relations that serve them or to maintain their occupation and colonialism.” »

And regarding my initial point about the actual breaking(s) of the ceasefire (which is all the more significant because even you, an extremely informed and conscientious citizen of the world were ignorant of it):

US media didn’t report Israeli ceasefire violation

« Consumed by coverage of the 4 November presidential election, US mainstream media ignored a key Israeli military attack on a Hamas target that some Palestinians claim marked the effective end of the ceasefire between the two sides and set the stage for the current round of bloodletting.

While the major US news wire Associated Press (AP) reported that the attack, in which six members of Hamas’s military wing were killed by Israeli ground forces, threatened the ceasefire, its report was carried by only a handful of small newspapers around the country.

The 4 November raid — and the escalation that followed — also went unreported by the major US network and cable television new programs, according to a search of the Nexis database for all English-language news coverage between 4 to 7 November. »

Please feel free email me if you’d like any further pointers or to run any work-in-progress by me.

And get that spam filter fixed!

The rhetorical question I meant to add after that last quote:

Do you think that timing was a coincidence?

Two more deeply insightful/illuminating pieces:

Gaza: Foreign Ministry Media Manipulation

Israel and White Supremacy

A couple additional points…

US funding of Israeli military (based on 2007 figures): over $6.4 million per day.

Chart here:

And if you still think this unwavering support is just the Bush administration…

Few speak out for Palestinians in U.S. Congress

« Harry Reid, who leads the Democratic majority in the Senate, gave voice to the depth of the relationship when he said on Thursday, “Our resolution reflects the will of the State of Israel and the will of the American people.”

The Senate measure offered “unwavering commitment” to Israel. It recognized “its right to act in self-defense to protect its citizens against acts of terrorism” and urged a ceasefire that would keep Hamas from firing rockets at Israel. »

This resolution was passed unanimously in the Senate, and 390-5 in the House.

And for the record, Hamas’s publicly stated terms for a ceasefire on their part are “complete cease-fire lifting the siege and withdrawal of all the Israeli troops in addition to opening all border-crossings especially the Rafah-Egypt crossing.” (Source)

Question: Could you adjust your color scheme for the comments? The current settings cause visited links to be shown in white – i.e., invisible.

Unfortunately the folks who designed the spam filter–Akismet–have it set up so links are perceived as spam, so it would take someone who can write code to figure out a way to differentiate the good links from the bad ones. I am looking into a way to try it from the other end.

As for the color scheme, it took a bit of manipulating, but I think visited links will show up better now. Thanks for the advice.

As for your larger points, one of the chapters that was axed in the book Strange Death focused on the impact of the Christian Right on George Bush and his foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Many years ago they formed an open alliance with the Israeli groups intent on adding more territory based on a belief called dispensationalism, which dates back to the nineteenth century. It holds that Israel must return to its Biblical territory before the Last Days can begin. This alliance resulted in none other the late Jerry Falwell and former GOP representative Tom DeLay being honored by the Israelis.

How much that has played a role in the current crisis is an interesting question. For example, it seems to be the consensus of many commentators that Israel has picked this fight and is refusing to participate in a cease fire because it views the Bush Administration as more pro-Israel than the incoming Obama team.

Unfortunately the preliminary research I was able to do over the weekend, turned up little, so it remains a speculation.

Hi there! Great post! Please inform us when I will see a follow up!

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