Obama's Dry Run

Obama hasn’t said much about Mumbai or Gaza. That’s fine for now, but he’s missing a chance to test his national-security team in private.

President-elect Barack Obama continues to avoid public comment on the ongoing (and escalating) crisis in Gaza. Ambassador Ned Walker at the Middle East Institute observes that he may have good, sound political reasons for doing so. "I don't think he wants to be tagged at this point with either advocating the Israeli response or condemning it because our (U.S.) interests are sort of torn on this one," Walker told the Reuters news agency.

Fine. That is perfectly understandable. But even if the incoming president does not want to send any confusing signals about the U.S. posture in the remaining days of the Bush administration, there is no reason that Obama cannot use the current crisis to test how his national-security team is going to function. Rick Norton, professor of national-security studies at the Naval War College, notes that the president-elect has an opportunity to experiment-before he has to hit the ground running after January 20th-with how he wants to run national security affairs, including how he wants to be briefed during a crisis, how much information he expects to have before him, how (and who) will filter information to him, and the manner in which he expects different opinions and perspectives to be presented to him.

A month ago, after Obama made his first round of nominations to staff his cabinet, I observed, "It is hard to imagine this diverse collection of individuals (and their respective staffs) forming an integrated, seamless national-security apparatus." But the Gaza crisis allows the president-elect to begin to see how his "team of rivals" might operate in a real-world setting. Yes, his nominees do not have control of any of the bureaucracies or agencies of the federal government-but they are still well-informed individuals with strong opinions and perspectives. Norton feels that Obama has an opportunity to see how his advisers might work together-and for his designated appointees to become more comfortable interacting with each other-prior to the inauguration. After all, it is not likely that Gaza will be "done" in less than two weeks; in addition, there is still the simmering India-Pakistan relationship in the aftermath of Mumbai.

Obama also has the opportunity to test (and if needed, alter) his ground rules. How will disputes be refereed? Is he going to be comfortable if, say, Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates have major disagreements and want to air their arguments in front of the president? In terms of who "gets to speak"-will everyone around the table have five minutes to make a case to the president, or will some members of the national-security team be the "thinkers" and others expected to be the "implementers"? Who will have the authority to assign responsibility for follow-up reporting to the president? Which of the main players will have "no-knock" rights to communicate directly with the president at any time-without having to go through staff? How, precisely, will National Security Advisor-designate General James Jones work as Obama's "honest broker"-and will he or Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel be the president's principal gatekeeper when it comes to foreign affairs? The vice president-elect is assembling a formidable national-security affairs staff of his own; will Joe Biden emerge as Obama's "vicar" in foreign policy?

On January 7, Obama is scheduled to meet with former presidents at the White House. Perhaps Jimmy Carter might relay to the new president the disastrous first meeting of his own White House senior staff, where there were no clear lines of authority (and where Carter's lawyer Robert Lipshutz called the assemblage to order on the grounds of being the "oldest person" in the room). That's an example the president-elect would want to avoid at all costs.

Assembling his national-security team (even virtually, if people cannot be physically present) for a practice run to discuss options for Gaza may be the best way to ensure that, come inauguration day, the new president is ready for the hand off.

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this essay are entirely his own.