This transition period was supposed to be all about getting a grip on
the financial crisis -- and it looked this week as if Barack Obama has
succeeded sufficiently to take the Thanksgiving holiday off. But on
Wednesday, the president-elect was reminded that he is inheriting
messes far beyond Wall Street.
The devastating attacks in Mumbai -- which have left more than 100
dead and three times that number seriously wounded -- have put the war
on terror back in competition for Obama's urgent attention. And the
reported focus of the attackers in U.S. and European visitors to India
makes this anything but a foreign affair.
Wednesday's developments do not quite qualify as the "test" famously
anticipated during the fall campaign by Joe Biden, the outgoing Senate
Foreign Relations Committee chair who will now serve as Obama's
loose-lipped vice president. But Obama and his aides are scrambling to
refocus after a key American ally suffered a devastating attack that
John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the Central Intelligence
Agency refers to as "India's 9-11."
Even if we correct for the hyperbole, there is no question that
Obama is going to be answering questions about something other than his
post-Thanksgiving shopping plans -- an inquiry he took at a press
conference before the attacks began in Mumbai.
The official statement from the president-elect's transition team
was crisp, professional and parallel to those from the White House of
George Bush, the man Obama will replace in less than two months:
President-Elect Obama strongly condemns today's
terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and his thoughts and prayers are with the
victims, their families, and the people of India. These coordinated
attacks on innocent civilians demonstrate the grave and urgent threat
of terrorism. The United States must continue to strengthen our
partnerships with India and nations around the world to root out and
destroy terrorist networks. We stand with the people of India, whose
democracy will prove far more resilient than the hateful ideology that
led to these attacks.
The real measure will come early next week, when Obama will begin to
announce key defense and foreign affairs picks for his Cabinet. If
Obama had been developing any doubts about keeping Bush Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates on the job, they have almost certainly been
eliminated. And there can be no doubt that New York Senator Hillary
Clinton's claim on the Secretary of State job is strengthened, as
Clinton is well connected and well regarded in southern Asia.
This does not mean that Gates and Clinton -- or the other Washington
insiders that will accompany them -- are necessarily the right picks.
But the pressure for establishment continuity will be greater now than
ever. And prospects that the next president might be talked out of his
wrongheaded plans to surge more U.S. troops into Afghanistan -- and
perhaps Pakistan -- have surely dimmed.
Indeed, on Wednesday night, the president-elect was on the phone
with outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And no matter what
was actually said, the subtext was unmistakable: Barack Obama just lost
a little bit more of the space and flexibility that has traditionally
been afforded presidents-elect during their transition periods. For
better or worse -- and in this case it is probably worse -- events are
forcing Obama into the thick of another Bush administration challenge
that will not go away when Bush does.