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A transition like no other: Foreign relations in the lame duck period

All eyes are on Saudi Arabia and Israel, as both countries seemingly have the most to lose with Trump's departure.

Analysis | Washington Politics

Presidential transitions often raise concerns about possible vulnerability of the United States to overseas events. The nation is still preoccupied with domestic politics after the election, one crew is cleaning out its desks, and another crew is jockeying for positions in the new administration. The problems associated with this sort of disruption are greater in the United States than in other advanced democracies because of the enormous number of jobs in the executive branch that are political appointments that change with each administration rather than being performed by a permanent professional service.

This attention-draining disruption may cause important and even dangerous developments abroad to fall through the cracks. The developments might be ones, such as popular upheavals in a foreign country, that occur according to nobody’s schedule and just happen to occur during a U.S. transition. Or they may be the conscious work of a foreign regime that either wants to take advantage of the Americans’ transition-related distraction or believes that the U.S. response to whatever the regime wants to do will be less favorable under the new U.S. administration than under the outgoing one.

Two factors normally tend to mitigate U.S. vulnerability to such hazards. One is that despite the partisanship and fixation on domestic politics, much of what is important in U.S. foreign policy and foreign relations has represented continuity and a commitment across administrations to defend what are broadly recognized as U.S. national interests. Most administrations, even in the wake of a disappointing election result, take transitions seriously and have no desire to leave a mess for their successors that would only reflect badly on themselves and would tend to undermine what they have attempted to accomplish.

The other factor is that the outgoing president, whatever his disappointment, has for the final two months of his term been liberated from the constraint of worrying about how what he does will play in the next election. He can take the most politically unvarnished view of the national interest and act entirely on behalf of that interest.

This time, both of those mitigating factors are absent. The outgoing president doesn’t care about continuity and instead appears to value discontinuity. The most consistent “principle” in Donald Trump’s foreign policy, as with much of his domestic policy, has been to do the opposite of whatever Barack Obama did. There is no reason to believe Trump’s frame of mind will be any different with the transition about to take place. His administration’s efforts to weaken and intimidate the professional government services, including the Foreign Service, will add to the discontinuity.

Trump also has never shown any inclination to put broader national interests — of the sort that any U.S. administration could and should support — ahead of his own private interests, such as massaging his ego or his pocketbook or keeping his supporters fired up. Being freed from any worry about how the larger voting public will react to his actions is, in his case, not a liberation to do what is right for the country but instead the loss of what could have been a salutary restraint on damaging behavior.

Foreign incentives and reactions

The foreign policy hazards associated with the current lame duck period, therefore, are greater than with most previous ones. That does not mean that foreign regimes necessarily will rush to exploit that fact. Many governments, especially those of Western allies, are counting the days until Trump’s departure and the advent of a presidency that they can do business with on the basis of serious attention to shared interests and a commitment to living up to agreements. Most will keep counting and not do anything to disrupt the U.S. transition.

Adversaries of the United States are for now enjoying the calumnies that Trump himself had been throwing against American democracy throughout the campaign and that, in the wake of defeat, he continues to throw. The likes of Iran are only too happy to broadcast in full Trump’s falsehood-filled rants about election fraud even when responsible U.S. networks do not. As long as such self-destruction of American democracy continues, it generally will not be in the interest of U.S. adversaries to do things that would distract from the show.

China had mixed motives in anticipating the U.S. election, being happy about the substantial weakening of America’s standing in the world under Trump but also wanting to do serious diplomatic business with the United States regarding trade. Beijing no doubt hopes to get away from the trade war with the United States under Biden and will not do anything during the lame duck period to compromise the chances of doing so. The Chinese may have some concern about Biden feeling a need to demonstrate tough-on-China credentials early in his term, and for that reason may move up to the next two months any controversial action they were contemplating that would risk a severe U.S. response. But no such action comes easily to mind.

The Putin regime in Russia had a clear preference regarding the U.S. election outcome, and Putin realizes that the leverage he evidently has over Trump — the sources of which have yet to be fully known — he is about to lose, at least as far as any impact on U.S. policy is concerned. Putin thus may have an incentive to execute sooner rather than later any move he might be contemplating that could elicit a hostile U.S. response, although again there is not an obvious candidate for what such a move might be. Moscow will look forward to more constructive negotiations with Biden than with Trump on arms control. As with China on trade, Russia has an incentive to avoid actions that would screw up that prospect.

The regimes that are most unhappy about Trump losing and are most likely to take near-term actions affected by the election outcome are those of Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime of de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, has enjoyed the Trump administration’s political cover amid a host of human rights offenses including even a brutal murder of a journalist in a consulate, and has received not just cover but active cooperation in prosecuting a highly destructive war in Yemen. The right-wing Netanyahu government in Israel could hardly have wished for anything more from the United States under Trump as it cements its rule over the occupied Palestinian territories.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel have incentives to move up to the lame duck period any new controversial and destructive actions they may have been thinking about, to enjoy one last time the cover Trump has given them. For Saudi Arabia, this may mean more aggressive actions against dissidents and political rivals as MbS tries to secure one-man rule in Riyadh. With Israel, the most obvious response is further acceleration of settlement construction in the West Bank, although intensifying the already aggressive Israeli air attacks in Syria is another possibility.

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia want to make it as difficult as possible for the Biden administration to undo much of what Trump has done. This is especially true of Trump’s destruction of diplomacy with Iran, which the Trump administration itself also has been trying to make permanent. Stirring up trouble in the Persian Gulf, through an armed attack on Iran or actions designed to provoke an attack from Iran, thus may be options that both the Israelis and the Saudis have under consideration. Implementing any such option before January 20th would mean enjoying again the support of the man in the White House.

Trump as wild card

Trump himself remains the most dangerous lame duck wild card. What drives his actions during the next eleven weeks is a matter more for psychoanalysis than for policy analysis. What thoughts about legacy go through the mind of a man who was unable, even under the most friendly questioning, to articulate an agenda for a second term?

Trump’s past behavior suggests that a primary method for enhancing his self-image is to tear down others in an effort to make himself look better by comparison. In his final days in office, he has an opportunity to do that not just with his rhetoric but also with actions that will make it difficult for Joe Biden and his administration to function well in the early months of his term.

There won’t be the usual sort of transition cooperation that minimizes the risk of the new team being caught flat-footed by threats from abroad. There won’t be guidance similar to the warnings that Clinton administration officials provided to the incoming George W. Bush administration about Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization. There won’t be anything like the playbook on handling an infectious disease pandemic that the Obama administration left for Trump’s people.

Likely Trump sabotage of the Biden administration’s prospects extends not just to such acts of omission but also ones of commission. Trump’s manipulation of personnel practices, including the juggling of acting appointees, is likely to continue in ways that can impede the effective conduct of foreign relations not just before but shortly after January 20th. It also is possible that Trump, even apart from anything his collaborators in Israel and Saudi Arabia do, may look to the Persian Gulf to stir things up. A heightened crisis with Iran would be a great way to spoil the beginning of Biden’s administration.

President Donald J. Trump participates in a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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