[The following is a guest post from political scientist Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan, Central and South Asia, who served in the Obama administration.]
On December 16, 2016, President Obama, speaking at his last White House press conference, suggested to Donald Trump that, “Since there’s only one president at a time,” the president-elect should wait “before he starts having a lot of interactions with foreign governments other than the usual courtesy calls.”
At that time I was in Beijing discussing ideas for U.S.-China cooperation in Afghanistan. Two days earlier, on December 14, 2016, the spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs office warned of the consequences of trying to reopen the One China” policy, three days after Donald Trump had announced in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he would do just that. If so, the spokesman said, “the healthy, stable development of China-US relations is out of the question, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait will be seriously impacted.” In private my Chinese interlocutors parsed that general statement: China could work with the U.S. on areas of common interest such as Afghanistan despite conflicts over the South China Sea, North Korea, or trade, but questioning the unity of China would end such coordination. If Trump carried out such a policy as president, they claimed, China could not rule out taking Taiwan by force.
On December 23, the same day that a U.S. abstention allowed the UN Security Council to pass without opposition a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, Trump tweeted, “As to the UN, things will be different after Jan. 20th.” He had openly allied with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign against the resolution. By the past week, when Washington Post national security columnist David Ignatius raised multiple questions about Trump’s not so covert cooperation with Russia, including multiple calls between incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador in Washington, such acts had almost been normalized.
When I read in Beijing that the president had cited the “one president at a time” rule, it recalled to me a message I had received in the waning days of December 2008. The message came from Denis McDonough, still President Obama’s chief of staff for a few more days, and then in charge of national security on the Obama transition team. When I got home at the end of December, I found to my surprise that I had saved the original exchange.
In 2008 I volunteered for the Obama campaign as an “advisor” on the national security team. The job was pretty meaningless, but not totally meaningless, apparently. In October the had asked me to resign for fear of political blowback if my cooperation with the UN in trying to open dialogue with the Taliban became public. I took my name off of everything but kept in contact informally.
After the election I traveled to Kabul, where I had a lengthy discussion with President Karzai. Karzai expressed concern about U.S. counter-insurgency policy. After becoming CENTCOM commander in October, General David Petraeus had begun trying to replicate the Awakening movement in Anbar province of Iraq. He was pressing the Afghan government to mobilize “tribal” militias outside state institutions. The Soviets had done the same. When the USSR collapsed, they stopped paying the militias, which overthrew President Najibullah, destroying most of what was left of the Afghan state in the process.
I foresaw that the U.S. military might confront the incoming administration with a fait accompli before it had a chance to decide on its policy. Rather than recommend that Susan Rice telephone President Karzai, however, I asked for a chance to discuss the issue myself in an email to Craig Mullaney. Mullaney, a former Army captain who had served in Afghanistan, and author of the memoir, The Unforgiving Minute, had been my contact in campaign headquarters in Chicago. Now he had joined the transition team in Washington.
I had not yet served in the U.S. government and hence did not fully appreciate the banality of the word “urgent” when I wrote to Mullaney on December 29:
There is something going on in Afghanistan that requires urgent attention and that, for all I know, is receiving it, but I would like to call it to your attention. I am referring to the attempt by CENTCOM to “arm tribes,” a program that is opposed by the Afghan government for what I think are valid reasons. I hear from Kabul that they are under a lot of pressure from the US. This could present the incoming administration with a fait accompli.
I asked for a meeting during an upcoming visit to Washington. I had cc’d McDonough, Mullaney’s boss, who, to my surprise, answered within an hour, probably because he saw a problem. First he declared himself my comrade in the War on Christmas, wishing me “Happy Holidays.” He went on:
As you may know, we are trying to respect the “one president at a time” rule, so have been holding off on contacts with foreign governments during the transition. I would value a chance to meet with you in your capacity as a scholar and leading Afghan expert. Just want to be sure we are all clear that the meeting would be in that capacity rather than in any other capacity in which you may be operating — including, for example, for the Afghan government.
See what I mean?
At first I had no idea what he was talking about. I reread my original note several times. Finally it dawned on me that my reference to the views of the Afghan government might have aroused his suspicion that Kabul had asked me to deliver a covert message. After I explained that I planned to deliver only my own views, McDonough allowed Mullaney to meet me, though only at the office of the Center for American Progress rather than at he transition team headquarters itself.