The problems of the world are not going to "take a break" simply because it is an election year in the United States. Nor will crises go to the back burner in the months between when Americans cast their ballots and a new president takes the oath of office. Moreover, the executive branch is often only finally staffed and up to speed several months after the inauguration.
There are a number of national-security issues where it will be important that someone remains "on duty" and focused between now, the election and when the new president has been able to staff his administration. North Korea has announced it is restarting its nuclear program. The North Atlantic alliance is coping with an existential crisis as the Euro-Atlantic community grapples with questions of expansion and what its core mission ought to be; the NATO meeting in December will be a critical test as to whether NATO can remain centered around a cohesive agenda. The military operations in Afghanistan are in a critical phase, as public opinion in several Western European states questions why their countries should be involved and when a new chief of staff of the Pakistani army seems less inclined to cooperate with Washington. Iraq certainly remains at the top of any agenda.
Unless both candidates have already picked out not only their cabinet-level but also subcabinet-level choices, particularly for the Defense Department, and therefore would be prepared the day after the election to immediately begin the transition process, perhaps both presidential candidates might consider asking Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to remain in office not simply through January but to a later point in the calendar for 2009; to ensure continuity and to provide a more stable and structured way to initiate the transition. This would also mean, particularly in that critical point between Election Day in November 2008 and Inauguration Day in January 2009, that there would be a senior figure with whom other countries could have confidence that any arrangements reached with the United States would not be measured with a shelf life of only a few weeks.
Why I am concerned is considering the lessons learned in early 1993-when a series of complicated national-security projects-from the mission in Somalia to trying to end the fighting in the Balkans-ran up against the sudden departure of Bush 41 staff and the time taken to get Clinton administration officials in their offices and acquainted fully with policy. Because there were no "life threatening" issues, at least to U.S. national security, the period of disjointedness that occurred while the Clinton team was getting into place was eminently survivable. Yet today, when Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and the crisis in Europe are occurring at the same time-and have much more serious ramifications for U.S. interests, a more structured transition might be more advisable.
Some have argued that if the new president doesn't immediately "put his man" into the office of the secretary of defense, he will not be able to implement "his" agenda. But when one looks at the actual process by which budgets and programs are developed, there is a great deal of continuity between outgoing and incoming administrations. Currently, the Defense Department is completing its Program Decision Memorandum (PDM) for fiscal year 2010. As my colleague at the Naval War College, Sean Sullivan, observes, such planning documents "present the next administration with a starting point." The next administration will have time to present more detailed strategic guidance, but, as he notes, DOD will "continue current acquisition program schedules."
Secretary Gates seems to be a figure that both of the presidential candidates could work with, and who would be able to assist in a much more seamless, less chaotic transition. It is perhaps an unorthodox idea to consider, particularly considering Washington's political culture, but these are uncertain times-and the next administration is not going to be given a honeymoon period to get up to speed on the critical issues of the day.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The ideas contained here are entirely his own.