Election Day is just around the corner, and after almost two years of non-stop campaigning the country is about to find out whether John McCain or Barack Obama will call the White House home for the next four years. For the winner and his supporters, victory will be seen as validation of the long political struggle. But make no mistake, the "spoils" of victory come with strings attached.
The good news is simply claiming victory. The bad news is the Oval Office comes fully stocked with a long list of foreign and national security-related problems which demand almost full-time attention from Day 1, including ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan on the verge of economic collapse, a Middle East peace process with only the smallest signs of forward movement, a government in Iran with nuclear ambitions and Russia pushing back against America's influence in Central and Eastern Europe.
Clearly the ongoing global economic meltdown has an impact not only all its own but also on these issues. America's NATO allies, who have sent their troops to help fight the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, also have interests to protect on both economic and military fronts. China, which holds billions in U.S. debt cannot be ignored, nor should it be.
Officially there will be a transition period for the incoming administration. The State Department and other agencies are preparing detailed briefing books to hand over to the incoming political appointees even as senior members of the foreign and civil service are already in place to smooth the transition. Recent history tells us that a new secretary of state will be appointed quickly, perhaps even confirmed by the Senate on inauguration day. But his/her deputy and the other senior officials who will eventually make policy in the new administration take much more time to be nominated, confirmed and find their way to decision-making meetings.
The nomination and confirmation process will go on for several months at a minimum but none of the problems on the desk in the Oval Office will wait, as the upcoming Global Economic Summit on Nov. 15 demonstrates. Twenty countries -- from the G-7 industrial giants to such developing economies as China and India -- will be represented at the gathering in President George W. Bush has organized to take place in Washington.
Question for America's new president: is the best way to reassure foreign leaders to sit at the table yourself, or merely send a senior representative? If the newly-chosen president leaves it to Mr. Bush alone to guide American policy for the next two months, then others at the table will question whether anything they decide will have the backing of the new president. If he does join the discussion, will the other heads of government listen to Mr. Bush or to the man who is about to take his place? A senior European official in Washington characterized the need to work together on the global financial crisis by saying, "everyone understands we are all on the same ship and we need to find a way to stabilize that ship. It is not only economic and financial, it is also political."
Another question deals with Iraq. For months the Bush administration and the Iraqi government have been negotiating a so-called SOFA, or status of forces agreement. Under what rules will American troops operate after the United Nations mandate runs out at the end of December? Will Iraqis have the legal right to prosecute members of the U.S. military for acts committed on Iraqi soil? While the negotiators have reached agreement there are some in the Iraqi political spectrum who want amendments. Will Baghdad try to get a better deal by waiting for the new president, and if so, how can U.S. forces operate until some decision is reached? A senior Iraqi official conceded there are those in Iraq who are playing for political gain while others are being influenced by Iran to sink any deal. It is another negotiation going down to the wire.
Thus, on the one hand America's new leader is being chosen with increased discussion about how to send more troops to Afghanistan to prevent a victory by the Taliban and less talk about how fast to pull our troops out of Iraq, while on the other hand we are totally consumed by an economic downturn the size of a tsunami.
Congratulations, Mr. president-elect. If you thought winning the White House was a tough road to travel, just wait until you move in.