Obama’s First Test

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The world has intruded on what was supposed to be Obama’s final Hawaiian idyll before taking the oath of office. As Mike Allen notes, the international community is watching how the President-elect and his incoming Secretary of State will react to the Israeli attack on Gaza that killed more than 225 270 people, with the London Sunday Times dubbing it the incoming Obama Administration’s “first serious foreign policy test.” Indeed, it is worth asking whether the surprise timing intensity of Israel’s retaliation is related to the fact that this country is in the midst of a presidential transition. The Times notes:

For Obama and Clinton the attacks will force an urgent appraisal of the Middle East question after months of verbal sparring earlier in the year over which of the two Democrats was best equipped to handle a Middle East crisis.

On several occasions during the presidential primaries Clinton had questioned Obama’s foreign policy experience; one campaign advertisement suggested she was better equipped to respond to “the 3am call” signalling trouble.

Obama’s decision to appoint his former rival as secretary of state sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East, as Israelis and Palestinians tried to decipher the candidates’ often conflicting policy statements for clues as to how the new administration intends to proceed.

Though Obama has been seen as more inclined than the Bush Administration toward diplomacy, he has also made it clear to Arab governments that he stands as a strong ally of Israel. On last summer’s overseas trip, Obama made a separate visit to the embattled town of Sderot, at the edge of Gaza, where he held a news conference at the police station and sympathized with the plight of Israeli parents who are trying to raise their children there under the constant fear of bombardment.:

His backdrop was a stack of hundreds and hundreds of shells that have fallen on Sderot. With Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni standing behind him, Obama declared, “I’m here to say as an American and as a friend of Israel that we stand with the people of Sderot and with all the people of Israel.”

David Axelrod on Meet the Press:

MR. GREGORY:  What is the president-elect’s position on this offensive against Gaza by Israel?

MR. AXELROD:  Well, obviously, it’s a very serious situation.  He spent some time on the phone with Secretary Rice yesterday, and he is monitoring the situation.  But we’ve said repeatedly through this transition period that we–there’s only one president at a time, and President Bush speaks for the United States of America until January 20th, and we’re going to honor that moving forward.

MR. GREGORY:  But in the course of the campaign, the now president-elect visited Sderot…

MR. AXELROD:  He did.

MR. GREGORY:  …in fact, in southern Israel, and he said that Israel had a right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas.

MR. AXELROD:  Indeed, he did.

MR. GREGORY:  Does he believe it’s appropriate for Israel, if it takes his decision, to push Hamas from power?

MR. AXELROD:  He did, as you said, visit Sderot in July, and he said then that he thought that when bombs are raining, raining down on your citizens, it is–it’s obviously unacceptable and there is an urge to act.  And so–but again, I don’t want to go beyond that because we only have one government and one president at a time.  And he’s going to continue to consult with Secretary Rice and the president and the administration on this and monitor these events.  And he’ll be prepared to take over on the 20th and, and, and discharge his responsibilities then.