WASHINGTON — The best thing about presidential elections is that they mark a break with the past. But that can also create a dangerous chasm — a period of uncertainty while the new administration hires its people and frames its policies. Meanwhile, the world's problems continue to fester.
It's like passing a baton, this process of transition, and it's easy for things to go wrong. Remember the ignominy of the U.S. men's and women's track teams in Beijing when they botched the handoffs in the 4x100-meter relays.
The Bush administration (remember them?) has an opportunity to build some bridges in foreign policy that could help the next administration, whoever is elected. Their goal shouldn't be to bind their successors but to preserve options — and to prevent deterioration of America's position during the interregnum.
One bridge-building opportunity right now involves Syria, a country that has often confounded U.S. policy in the Middle East. Syrian President Bashar Assad has asked America to join France and Turkey as a co-sponsor of its indirect peace talks with Israel. The Syrians want to lock in U.S. support for an initiative that has Israeli, Syrian and European backing.
The administration has been cautious, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met her Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moualem, in New York last month to resume high-level dialogue; her top Middle East deputy, David Welch, held a follow-up meeting. They should take the next step and test Syria's promise to meet with Israel if the United States backs the talks. Meanwhile, Washington and Damascus should reopen the channel they created after 9/11 to share intelligence about radical jihadists.
Another opportunity to pass the baton is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A real peace accord is out of reach, alas. But if Tzipi Livni can form a new Israeli government over the next few weeks, Rice hopes the two sides will endorse a set of principles for a final-status agreement. Having such a document would make it easier to resume the peace process quickly after Jan. 20.
The trickiest foreign-policy transition could be Iraq — where Barack Obama's call for a withdrawal timetable clashes with President Bush's (and John McCain's) desire for a more open-ended, conditions-based approach. But even here, there are some promising efforts to smooth the handoff. The U.S.-Iraqi negotiations over a security framework agreement are nearly complete — and far from ratifying an ongoing American military occupation, the Iraqis are demanding sensible guidelines for a phased withdrawal by the end of 2010.
On Afghanistan, there's agreement between Obama and McCain about the need for more troops, but little clarity about what they should do. The administration's review of Afghanistan policy options, leaked to the press last week, should help — especially if it clarifies a strategy for better governance, and not just more troops.
With Iran, probably the biggest foreign policy challenge for the next president, the Bush administration plans to take a helpful step in mid November by announcing the opening of a U.S. interest section in Tehran. That will break the ice, and make it easier for the next president to begin the kind of dialogue with Iran that's necessary. The administration had planned to announce the interest section in August, but Russia's invasion of Georgia and worries about U.S. politics intervened. Officials assure me it's still coming.
North Korea is another hot spot where a sharp break in U.S. policy would be dangerous. Bush is trying to build a pathway with a plan for verifying North Korea's movement toward denuclearization, which could be embraced by the next president.
Finally, there's a need to manage the U.S.-Russia relationship after the shock of the Georgia crisis. I give Bush and Rice credit for keeping the door open for continued dialogue with Moscow, even as they try to prevent the Russians from consolidating their gains in Georgia and intimidating other neighbors. On this issue, the smartest thing Obama could do would be to endorse Bush's policy — and in the process, argue that it's McCain ("Today, we are all Georgians") who's the outlier.
To facilitate the transition, Bush issued an executive order to allow the next president's team to get intelligence clearances and briefings soon after the Nov. 4 election. A president concerned with his legacy appears to understand the importance of a smooth handoff, so his successor can make a running start.
David Ignatius' e-mail address is [email protected] © 2008, Washington Post Writers Group