A Tough Transition

Presidential transitions are tough even in the best of circumstances. And with the outcome of this year’s political brawl delayed by weeks of legal and political maneuvering, the 2001 transition will be tougher than most.

That could play out in dangerous ways in the seething Middle East and produce new strains on relations between this country and Israel, which this week entered its own political no-man’s-land with the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

And the difficult transition could have dangerous consequences in other key foreign policy and domestic areas, including an economy that many analysts see as entering a new and much more volatile period.

Usually, an incoming administration uses the entire two-and-a-half months between the election and the inauguration to assemble the basic governing infrastructure and much of the first year to round out the team.

New personalities fill top political and policy posts; hundreds of lower-level appointees, who do the bulk of the heavy lifting of government, must be selected and trained in the intricacies of their jobs.

Top political appointees have to be vetted through FBI clearances before their nominations can be submitted to the Senate for confirmation. In recent years, conflict between the White House and Congress has made the process even slower and more contentious.

Today, the creaky transition machinery has been slowed further by the bitter, all-consuming fight over the election results.

Many top White House aides for the new Bush administration have been selected, but the process of filling out the bureaucratic hierarchy has hardly begun.

The top lieutenants in the Bush campaign, who normally would be up to their eyeballs in transition minutiae, were focused mostly on the fight over the vote in Florida.

Transitions are never smooth, but the predictable policy hiccups usually don’t make a big difference.
But the equation will be different in 2001, when a handful of crises could demand strong, assertive leadership at precisely the moment when leadership in Washington is at its weakest.

At the top of the list is a dangerous, deteriorating situation in the Middle East.

This week the Palestinian intifada continued to produce a grim body count, and Israel was plunged into new uncertainty with the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the political resurrection of the man he beat less than two years ago, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

These factors are likely to be at a high boil on inauguration day.

It could be that Barak’s gamble will jolt Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat back to the peace table and to a quick agreement that will win the approval of Israel’s citizens in a vote Barak wants to be a referendum on the peace process.

If that happens, closing a deal may require sophisticated American diplomacy by the incoming Bush administration.

The Mideast generalities of the campaign trail provide little preparation for the tough, clear-headed diplomacy that could be demanded of Washington within days of the arrival of the Bush team.

The other scenario is this: Arafat does not call off the current intifada, and by the time the inauguration rolls around, the violence is even worse.

The Bush administration will have to grapple for new ways to stem the violence. More importantly, it will have to craft policies to keep it from spreading across the region.

A flareup along the Israel-Lebanon border seems increasingly likely; Israel has already made it clear it would go after Syrian targets. Iraq has been making threatening moves for months; U.S. relations with Egypt are troubled.

And there is the looming threat that Persian Gulf nations could be pressured into cutting their oil supplies, which would have a massive impact on the precarious U.S. economy.

The deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian situation is only one of a number of foreign policy flashpoints that will whack the new administration on the head on inauguration day.

Sanctions on Iraq are falling apart, largely because of ineffective U.S. leadership, and Saddam Hussein is reacting predictably — with threats and worrisome moves by his military.

Then there’s Russia, whose leader, President Vladimir Putin, is eager to reassert his country’s dominant role in world events, a role that apparently includes selling more arms to Iran.

Domestically, the U.S. economy seems on the cusp. There are many signs that the record boom of the ’90s could be nearing an end; analysts are now speculating mostly on whether it will be a hard or soft landing.
In any event, it will take a steady hand and sober policies by the Bush administration to keep things from getting untracked — and not just the glib tax-cut-in-every-pot promises of the campaign.

These are problems that would test the mettle of the most experienced administration. For a brand-new White House team, coming to power after an abbreviated and troubled transition period, the challenge will be particularly daunting.

Bush exerted unprecedented effort in winning the job. On Jan. 21, he may have good reason to regret that investment.