- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008




“Ready, Fire, Aim” caricatures how U.S. administrations and governments often behave. Had George W. Bush not succumbed to this syndrome in going to war in Iraq, President-elect John McCain might be fashioning his transition. Instead, millions at home and abroad are congratulating and saluting the next American president, Barack Obama.

Flush with a historic victory, the Obama team is planning his administration. President Bush has promised full cooperation. Despite the danger warnings, will Mr. Obama and his senior advisors fall into the trap of ready, fire, aim in translating campaign promises and slogans into policies and in selecting people for high office? The electoral rout of Republicans giving Democrats large majorities in both Houses of Congress will add political adrenaline rather than restraint to this transition process.

Clearly, economic and financial crises along with the war in Iraq and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan will rise to the top of Mr. Obama’s already overcrowded agenda filled with a myriad of other competing pressures and decisions that must be made. So what can Mr. Obama and his team do to ensure that his administration will reflect aims and objectives based on the nation’s best interests rather than on campaign sound bites, political IOU’s and partisan biases? Step one is defining the problems and the possible corrective actions. Step two is identifying the skill sets that will be needed in assembling a team for governing. Step three is prioritizing step one and connecting with step two. Given the on-going wars and economic crises, Mr. Obama will be under great pressure to make these choices quickly if only to build public confidence in his ability to lead.

Consider three of the most pressing issues: the economy, Iraq and with President Dmitry Medvedev’s latest challenge to install short range missiles along its western borders to counter the missile defense systems being installed in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Mr. Obama’s economic team will extend far beyond his choice for Treasury. The heads of the National Economic Council and the Council of Economic Advisers are part of the team. The skill sets must include wide experience in economic crises; deep appreciation of macro-and microeconomics and business; and master political abilities to deal with diverse and often adversarial constituencies. No person has all of these qualities. But which are most important for each position? That judgment should drive the choice and not merely the need to name names of people who are competent but not necessarily in the crucial areas.

At the same time, Mr. Obama has promised to cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans. The other 5 percent however pay the lion’s share of taxes. And if the Bush tax cuts are not extended next year, everyone’s pocket book will be hit. A cardinal rule in times of recession is not to raise taxes. The new team better understand this reality, otherwise the economic mess will worsen irrespective of campaign slogans and promises.

Second, regarding Iraq, it seems highly probable that the Maliki government will not approve the current Status of Forces Agreement nor will the U.N. extend its mandate to legalize the U.S. presence. The upshot will require U.S. forces to return to their bases in Iraq and await further orders come Jan. 1st. Because Mr. Obama promised to withdraw all U.S. combat forces within 18 months, some of his advisers will greet this stalemate enthusiastically. That would be disastrous.

The Obama team needs time to make a thorough assessment of what such a decision would mean. Hence it is prudent and reasonable to ask the Iraqis for a 3-4 month deferral while the new administration takes over. Should Iraq deny this request for an extension, that will provide political cover for the drawdown. If it is agreed, the administration will have time for more careful deliberation.

Finally, Mr. Obama has said he will deter Russian aggression. Despite bipartisan concurrence here over Russia turning rogue, a second opinion is needed. As the New York Times reported last week and keen observers knew, Russian intervention into Georgia several months ago appears to have been provoked. And, from a Russian perspective, the stationing of missile defenses and the expansion of NATO east are direct threats to Moscow no matter how much the Bush administration has said otherwise.

Mr. Obama would be well advised to step back and take a harder look at the U.S.-Western-Russian relationships before taking on another enemy we can ill afford.

Democrats along with many Americans are euphoric over the election of Mr. Obama and what it signifies about American aspirations. That euphoria is welcome. Many Democrats see the election as the mandate for change promised by their candidate. However, if change is to come, it must be on the basis of “ready, aim, fire” and not the reverse.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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