Obama’s Return to Washington

Bullshit We Can Believe In

CHICAGO — President-elect Barack Obama will fly to Washington this afternoon, where he will join his wife, Michelle, and their daughters at the historic Hay-Adams Hotel.

Obama is scheduled to leave his hometown of Chicago later today and arrive at Andrew’s Air Force Base in the early evening. The president-elect has a busy week ahead, grappling with the heavy ground war in Gaza and meeting with congressional leaders to hammer out his massive economic stimulus plan.

His batteries recharged after a two-week Hawaiian vacation, Obama spent the last two days in Chicago, where he worked at his downtown transition office, got his hair cut and packed for the move to Washington.

Michelle Obama and their girls, Malia and Sasha, arrived in the capital on Saturday night so they would have time to settle in before the girls begin classes Monday morning at Sidwell Friends School. Israel’s ground invasion of the Gaza Strip has abruptly increased the stakes of the war for Washington at an awkward moment when the president’s power is ebbing and his successor is choosing to remain on the sidelines.

The incursion that began Saturday raises the chances of a sharp increase in casualties — perhaps on both sides — that would sharpen international pressure for the United States to intervene to end the conflict. World powers are already clamoring for Washington to play its traditional lead role in finding a way out of the crisis.

The ground attack “intensifies the conflict, and with that, more and more people are now going to be looking to Washington,” said David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

President elect Obama may have hoped that he could begin his term dealing with Arab-Israeli issues from some middle ground. But as soon as he is sworn in the deepening crisis will make it difficult for him to avoid taking a position that will upset one side or the other.

There have been some signals that Israel, which generally prefers short wars, wants to wrap up the fighting before Obama takes office. But now, with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warning that the incursion “will not be short,” there appears to be a growing possibility that President-elect Obama will be faced with a shooting war to contend with as soon as he is sworn in in 15 days.

While Bush administration officials insist they have been pressing hard to advance the diplomacy, questions remain about whether they have the leverage to produce a settlement, or even want one at a moment when there is no clear victor in the fighting. If the fighting ends in ambiguity, it could be read around the region as a victory for Hamas, as well as its supporters in Tehran.

Steven Cook, Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the invasion comes at “this weird moment the president’s powers are diminished, and his successor is not yet engaged.”

Makovksy, of the Washington Institute, said that from his perspective “nobody’s home” in Washington. The Obama team, which has laid out its intentions on the financial stimulus, says it intends to continue to defer to the Bush administration on this leading foreign policy issue.

Brooke Anderson, Obama’s chief national security spokesperson, said: “The president-elect is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza. There is one president at a time, and we intend to respect that.”

The Bush administration has repeatedly put the onus on Hamas to take steps to end the fighting. Officials have declined in recent days to take a position on whether the ground invasion was justified, and whether Israel’s response so far has been “proportional.” The international diplomacy is focusing on crafting a mechanism that can assure that Hamas won’t be able to shoot rockets into Israel or be resupplied with rockets and other arms through its porous southern border with Egypt.

Diplomats are discussing using such possibilities as an international force, international monitors, perhaps from the UN, or forces from an Arab or Muslim country. They are debating whether such a group would be put in place more or less permanently, or simply in the short term until a Palestinian Authority force can be put in place.

One model under discussion is the UN force in Lebanon whose role was broadened as a means to end Israel’s 2006 war with the Hezbollah militia group. But Israelis have mixed feelings about that solution, since Hezbollah has been rearmed in the past two years. Makovsky speculated that the Israel military’s ultimate goal may be to secure the crossing points in the south of Gaza because of their strategic importance. If that is the secret Israeli goal, it raises the diplomatic question of how world powers could put in place arrangements to guarantee Hamas does not regain control.

He said many Arab governments share the unhappiness of the United States and Israel with Hamas, and would like to see others in control. But he said the United States needs to rise to the challenge of figuring out an acceptable international mechanism. Aaron David Miller, a veteran U.S. Mideast peace negotiator, said any solution has to deal with a number of issues: the rockets, the tunnels under the southern border through which arms are smuggled, control of the border crossing points, and the fate of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped in 2006.

While the international diplomacy on this has begun, “it’s going to take some time — I don’t see how they’re going to do it.”

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