Washington, D.C. – Over the course of the last two months President-elect Barack Obama and the Presidential Transition Team (PTT) have replaced their campaign maxim, "Change We Can Believe In," with a new mantra: "We Only Have One President at a Time."
It is a slogan that has already worn out.
Obama and the PTT have used this phrase repeatedly in response to reporters' questions on the economy, federal bailouts, foreign policy, national security, the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the future of "Gitmo" and the Russian decision to shut down the delivery of natural gas to Western Europe through Ukrainian pipelines.
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During this week's Oval Office photo-op with President George W. Bush and former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and William Jefferson Blyth Clinton, Obama used the "one president at a time" dodge to avoid answering a reporter's hurled interrogatory about Israeli military operations in Gaza. The response from those in the lineup, and apparently most in the mainstream media, is to nod approvingly at Obama's sagacity every time they hear him say it.
The only trouble is — it simply isn't true.
While the current, former and future commanders-in-chief went off to snack and chat, Senator Joe Biden, the soon-to-be vice president of the United States, headed off to Andrews Air Force Base to commence a hastily convened, week-long "congressional fact finding mission" to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Absent from the secret itinerary divulged by Mr. Biden were other places with even more pressing problems: India — a U.S. ally still recovering from the brutal Mumbai terror attack and on the brink of attacking Pakistan. The Ukraine — a NATO applicant, threatened by interference from Moscow and this week's natural gas cutoff. And Israel — an American ally facing the threat of U.N. sanctions for acting in self defense to protect its citizens from Iranian-supplied rockets and mortars being fired from Gaza by Hamas, and which now faces attacks from Iranian-supported Hezbollah terror in Lebanon.
While the potentates of the press gush over the forthcoming "history-making inaugural," the Biden "Codel" — Washington-speak for "congressional delegation" — to select trouble-spots has made some little-noted history of its own. Unlike Obama, Biden did not surrender his Senate seat. This week, when Congress reconvened, Biden insisted on being sworn in as Delaware's senior senator and retaining his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Unlike Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Dan Quayle and Al Gore — who all ascended to vice presidency of the Unites States from the Senate and did nothing to interfere in diplomatic issues between election and inaugural — Biden is now dabbling about in the affairs of state.
Biden defends his actions by pointing to the company he is keeping on this trip: fellow Senators John Kerry, D-Mass., Jack Reed, D-R.I., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C. Earlier in the week, perhaps forgetting the post he will occupy on Jan. 20, Biden said, "I'm a still a Senate man." None of the media all-stars covering the PTT thought to ask Obama what he thought of this response. Notably, Hillary Rodham Clinton — soon to become the next secretary of state — was neither included in the CODEL nor available for comment about the propriety of such an unprecedented adventure.
None of this bodes well for the new administration or for America's interests in a very dangerous world. The situations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are certainly important. But so too are outcomes in Gaza and Lebanon, our relationship with India and the effects of an increasingly tense standoff between Russia and Ukraine. All of these places and problems matter to U.S. national security, and all are perhaps in more urgent need of attention.
Obama can't have it both ways. He cannot claim on the one hand that "we have only one president" and then dispatch his future vice president on a thinly-disguised CODEL to diddle in diplomacy without having world leaders take note of what the incoming administration considers to be important. In permitting the Biden CODEL to go forward and approving the itinerary, Obama has sent a signal — intentionally or not — to allies and adversaries alike.
From Moscow to Tehran, Caracas to Beijing, London to Delhi, in virtually every world capital, foreign leaders and their intelligence services are now making judgments about the next leader of the free world. They learned something about his wisdom, seriousness and maturity this week when he picked Leon Panetta, a man with "intelligence deficit disorder," to head the CIA. Perhaps they also had a little chuckle when he chose a TV celebrity doctor to become surgeon general to deal with bio-terrorism and possible pandemics. Hopefully the Biden CODEL trip to Southwest Asia did not lead them to conclude that Obama is not a man of his word.
— Oliver North hosts War Stories on FOX News Channel and is the author of the new best-seller, "American Heroes: In The War Against Radical Islam." He has just returned from assignment in Afghanistan.