What happens when the most powerful country in the world effectively has two presidents at once? Its policy regarding one of the most complex conflicts on the planet collapses into a muddled mess.
Or, more precisely, you have what unfolded over the last 48 hours: The Egyptian government submits to the UN Security Council a resolution against Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This raises the possibility that the Obama administration could express its opposition to Israeli settlement policy by abstaining from the vote, rather than vetoing the resolution as it had with a similar one in 2011. Enraged Israeli officials call up Donald Trump, who tweets that the United States should veto. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president of Egypt, abruptly calls off the vote. At some point during all this, Trump has a phone conversation with Sisi where they chat about jointly solving various issues in the Middle East. Anonymous Israeli officials, essentially siding with the incoming Trump administration, criticize Obama in unusually harsh terms for plotting with the Palestinians to abandon Israel at the United Nations. A day later, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, and Venezuela reintroduce the resolution, which comes to a vote and is adopted by the Security Council, including Egypt, with the United States abstaining. Barack Obama delivers a powerful parting message to Israel’s leaders that is powerfully undercut by Donald Trump’s opening message. “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” Trump tweets shortly after the vote.
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Transitions of power are always awkward, uncertain moments in the life of a nation and its relations with the world. Richard Nixon’s campaign aides, for example, allegedly interfered with Vietnam War peace talks organized by Lyndon Johnson. But Donald Trump has involved himself in international affairs like no U.S. president-elect in recent memory. NBC News reviews some of the history:
President Bill Clinton told the press after his 1992 victory that he would “reaffirm the essential continuity of American foreign policy” and recognized “that America has only one president at a time.”
President George W. Bush declined questions on topics like North Korea and Israel until he took the oath of office in early 2001. “We have one president, and we’ll have one president, and the current president is President Clinton, and our nation must speak with one voice,” Bush said at a press conference.
In 2008-2009, Barack Obama’s transition team repeatedly invoked the norm that the United States has “only one president at a time” to explain why Obama was staying silent on issues like the Gaza War. That “constitutional principle,” Obama’s incoming press secretary said at the time, is “extremely important in the arena of foreign policy,” where it must be “clear who is speaking on behalf of the United States.” Noting the “delicate negotiations” that were occurring at the time between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama argued that “we can’t have two voices coming out of the United States when you have so much at stake.”
Yet in the waning days of 2016, two conflicting voices on high-stakes international issues is exactly what we have. Barack Obama is vowing to retaliate against the Russian government’s interference in the U.S. election; Donald Trump is questioning whether Russia interfered and thanking Vladimir Putin for his “very nice” Christmas card. Obama’s Pentagon demanded that China return a U.S. underwater drone seized in the South China Sea; Trump elevated the incident to an “unprecedented act” and then suddenly reversed course, suggesting the Chinese just “keep” the darn thing. Obama is dismantling a registration system for visitors from many Muslim-majority countries; Trump might soon revive it.
These contradictions have created such confusion in recent weeks that Jared Huffman, a Democratic congressman from California, has introduced legislation to amend the 1799 Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized private citizens from conducting U.S. foreign policy. Huffman wants to clarify that the law applies to presidents-elect, since “only the president, not the president-elect who is fresh off the campaign trail and not yet in office, has the authority to make critical foreign-policy decisions that impact America’s safety, economy, and global standing.” The legislation is still pending, with weeks to go before inauguration.