"Self-decapitation" is an odd way to describe one of the most cherished traditions in the United States, especially one celebrated for its absence of violence. But that is exactly how George W. Bush's last chief of staff Joshua Bolten recently characterized the presidential transition. It wasn't a criticism. Bolten was attempting to capture how sudden, certain, and clear-cut the transition is on January 20 when one head of the executive branch is removed and someone else becomes the president. "The White House is empty. There is nothing on the walls. There is nothing on the shelves. . . . It's a complete blank slate," Bolten said. "It's a moment of real vulnerability for the country," he added.
The United States has only one president at a time. Any vulnerability to the country as one replaces another is the cost of upholding that core tenet in American government. Thankfully, recent administrations have done a lot to limit this vulnerability by developing effective and detailed transition processes. Aware of the dangers in a post-9/11 world, President George W. Bush instructed Bolten to start preparing for the switch more than a year before the 2008 election. President Obama, deeply appreciative of the process encouraged by his predecessor, encouraged Congress to legislate support for the transition process and instructed his staff to prepare at least as well as the Bush team had done in 2008.
But the responsibility for a safe transition lies not only with the outgoing administration. The president-elect and his team must acknowledge that they have no formal authority until the inauguration and instead use the time to get ready for when the new president does have such authority. And to their credit, most have.
"The United States has only one government and one president at a time," Obama said in his first press conference as president-elect. Asked just days before his inauguration to weigh in on a developing crisis abroad, Obama said, "We cannot be sending a message to the world that there are two different administrations conducting foreign policy. That is not safe for the American people." Obama's words echo those of Bill Clinton, who as president-elect in 1992 encouraged foes and friends alike to recognize "that America has only one president at a time, that America's foreign policy remains solely in his hands . . . ."
It's not easy. The world does not come to a screeching halt in the seventy-odd days between an election and an inauguration. Far from it. President George H.W. Bush ordered troops into Somalia in December 1992, after Clinton was elected, for example. Eight years later President Clinton undertook initiatives over North Korea and elsewhere during the transition. In late 2008, President George W. Bush signed a status of forces agreement keeping US troops in Iraq for three more years — even though the president-elect had campaigned on ending the Iraq War. In each case, however, the president-elect deferred to the one and only commander in chief.
It is now clear that Donald Trump and his advisers broke from this practice during their transition. They secretly reached out to several governments, including Russia, in an effort to defeat a resolution on Israeli settlements at the United Nations. And they worked to undermine the impact of US sanctions against Russia that were imposed by President Obama in response to Moscow's election interference.
While not necessarily illegal (or unprecedented), the active engagement in foreign policy by the president-elect's team is unwise. Bypassing the sitting president on foreign policy, even if done by the president-elect, jeopardizes US power and authority abroad.
At minimum, the interference was a thoughtless use of time by an understaffed and inexperienced group about to enter the White House. Even in the best of circumstances the transition period is so brief that every moment should be spent on hiring the right people and learning as much as possible from the current administration. Such work is essential for the new team to walk into the empty White House on Inauguration Day and be ready and able to govern.
Trump and his team were told as much, of course. As President Obama explained in late 2016,
" . . . my advice to [Trump] has been that before he starts having a lot of interactions with foreign governments other than the usual courtesy calls, that he should want to have his full team in place, that he should want his team to be fully briefed on what's gone on in the past and where the potential pitfalls may be, where the opportunities are, what we've learned from eight years of experience, so that as he's then maybe taking foreign policy in a new direction, he's got all the information to make good decisions and, by the way, that all of government is moving at the same time and singing from the same hymnal."
This week we found out the cost of ignoring such sound advice.
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Thomas Friedman/The New York Times
Iran looms too large in the minds of leaders in the Middle East and beyond, writes Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. The Tehran obsession, not least held by the leaders in Tehran, is poisoning real and positive opportunities in the region. After all, with a handful of neighborhoods in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria controlled by Iranian proxies, what exactly is Iran winning? Not much, concludes Friedman. "The greatest thing that the US and Saudi Arabia could do is to stop working each other into a lather over this Iranian 'threat' and to focus on their domestic reform agendas," he writes. "That would be the best revenge on Tehran." (You can watch the video from Friedman's recent visit to the Council here.)
James Kynge and Michael Peel/Financial Times
To the panorama of multinational assemblies known by an acronym or set of numbers, we can now add another: "16+1." And it's the "one" that's most important. The new group of sixteen countries in central and eastern Europe plus China has stirred up concern further west that Beijing has less-than-benign intentions for the sub-region. Flush with money to invest and keen on a rewarding terminus for its "One Belt, One Road" program, Beijing is becoming the darling of central and eastern Europe. Yet as James Kynge and Michael Peel write in this smart article in the Financial Times, there is growing concern "that some 16+1 countries may exploit strong ties with China to buttress negotiating positions against Brussels."
David Ignatius/The Washington Post
Beijing has built up military installations on new islands in the South China Sea. It has embarked on an ambitious "One Belt, One Road" program across Eurasia. Both hint at a larger grand strategy by the rising power. Yet last month Xi Jinping made what may be the most revealing move yet regarding China's grand plan, and he did it by quoting an adage from Benjamin Franklin: "He who can have patience, can have what he will." As David Ignatius explains in the Washington Post, "That's an apt summary of China's quiet but relentless pursuit of becoming a global superpower."
Robert B. Zoellick/Wall Street Journal
"Mr. Trump's foreign policy represents a break from postwar presidents of both parties, reaching back to Harry S. Truman," writes George W. Bush's trade representative and deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick. In this smart op-ed, Zoellick explains how the populist impulse that animates Trump's foreign policy is weakening America's influence abroad — influence, by the way, that most Americans would like to keep strong. To make his case that US citizens remain in favor of America's long-held role abroad, Zoellick turns to data from the latest Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey of US public opinion, which you can read in full here.
David E. Sanger/The New York Times
The defining feature of the Cold War is that it remained "cold." While both the US and USSR has thousands of nuclear weapons, neither launched an atomic weapon against the other. It was understood on both sides that the retaliation against a nuclear strike would be total. But now, as David Sanger asks in the New York Times, can a similar logic hold for North Korea? There is no easy and sure answer, Sanger concludes, and the outcome depends as much on what Pyongyang believes Washington will do as vice versa.
Max Fisher, Eric Schmitt, Audrey Carlsen, and Malachy Browne/The New York Times
It was impressive, for sure. Using US military technology, Saudi Arabia recently shot down from midair a ballistic missile fired from Yemen. Among other things, the event was a boost for similar US defense systems designed to take down any missiles fired from North Korea or Iran. Yet as this intrepid reporting in the New York Times explains, the story may be more or less bunk. The article is an extraordinary work of investigative journalism, a thorough and detailed attempt to find the truth, and a gripping read with consequences reaching far beyond the Gulf.
Gideon Rachman/Financial Times
The brouhaha in the United States over the national anthem at sporting events is not unique to America, writes Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. In China, the vogue of effusively professing national devotion under the Xi regime has led to a new law making "insulting" the national anthem an offense punishable by several years in prison. In India, following a decision by India's supreme court, the national anthem is now played before movies. Yet in France, Emmanuel Macron celebrated his election victory earlier this year to the tune of "Ode to Joy" — the anthem of the European Union, rather than of France. It all amounts to a noisy battle between nationalists and internationalists, Rachman explains.
Gardiner Harris/The New York Times
Bill A. Miller was one of the most important people in the State Department. As chief of security, he was in charge of making sure US embassy and consulate staff were kept safe. After repeated requests, Miller was finally granted a meeting with Secretary of State Tillerson — for five minutes. Shortly thereafter, he was pushed out of the department. Dismissal and the forced retirement of career diplomats — not to mention stonewalling diplomats' requests — have become the go-to mechanisms in Tillerson's ongoing and top-down reorganization of the department. The process has not been without harsh criticism from former diplomats and State Department employees, several of whom were interviewed by Gardiner Harris for this revealing report in the New York Times.
Ehud Barak/The New York Times
"For anyone who cares about Israel, this is no time for niceties," writes former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak in the New York Times. True to his word, Barak dispenses with the niceties in this sharp and critical appraisal of the current Israeli leadership under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "In its more than three years in power," Barak writes, "this government has been irrational, bordering on messianic." The op-ed amounts to a full-throated critique of Netanyahu's leadership, which, as Barak concludes, "jeopardizes Israel's very future."