The Ethical Risks of Delay

| November 5, 2016
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Even though Americans will conclude the presidential election in a matter of hours, given the so-called “lame duck” period, there will be a delay in when the new administration is seated. Even if the Democrats retain control of the executive branch, however, there will be a period of disruption as many Barack Obama appointees are not expected to remain in place to serve in a Hillary Clinton administration. Moreover, new administrations routinely order “policy reviews” to assess the actions of the previous team and to decide what to continue and what to change.

Yet the rest of the world does not stop and wait for the U.S. government to get itself organized and to complete its reviews. For the nearly half a year that Washington stays in neutral, events, including wars, conflicts, and tragedies, continue to transpire–and the delay in the U.S. ability to assess and respond can complicate matters and lead to continued loss of life and destruction.

There are signs, for instance, that the exhaustion in Syria might lead the various actors to consider compromise solutions. This process is occurring against the backdrop of an increasingly disengaged United States (even if individuals like Secretary of State John Kerry continue to invest their personal capital and energy into diplomatic efforts). Yet the risk is that parties not satisfied with the parameters of a settlement that might lead to a cessation of fighting and a chance to end the ongoing threat to human life may pin their hopes on waiting for the next administration to decide what it wants to do about Syria (come March to May 2017), lose the window, and end up with a worse situation in the end.

We have one sad example from the recent past that should act as warning and template. In fall 1992, there were signs that after the first brutal months of fighting, there might be an opportunity to end the Bosnian war. An outgoing Bush team that was checking out from government passed it to a Clinton team that was not focused or ready to work on it. Months were lost while the new administration “learned the ropes,” the window was lost, and fighting continued. Eventually the Dayton Accords that ended the war in 1995 came about–after the cost of thousands of lives and without any significant improvement in terms of what was on the table three years earlier, namely, the effective division of Bosnia among its three constituent ethnic groups.

Given the hyperpartisan tenor of this campaign, this might be an impossibility, but the outgoing Obama administration may need to forgo its own preferred legacy-building in the weeks it has left and instead try to coordinate with the incoming chief executive’s team–whether from the other party or from a different foreign policy wing of the same party. Doing so will ensure that, if there are promising signs that the conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or tensions in the South China Sea can begin to move towards peaceful resolution (or at least stabilize), we avoid the problems of delay that normally accompany a presidential transition.

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