Indian Crisis "Tests" Obama
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.