November 22, 2016 By FTI Consulting
The period we are in now – between election day and inauguration day – historically has been a high-risk period. In past years, hostile foreign actors have taken advantage of a distracted U.S. government.
Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the U.S. on 20 January 2017. His lack of political experience and controversial campaign rhetoric have scrambled the risk landscape of the next four years.
But the period we are in now – the 73 days between election day and inauguration day, when the old administration is packing its bags and the new administration is not yet in place – historically has been a high-risk period. During previous presidential transitions, hostile foreign actors have taken advantage of the opportunity of a distracted U.S. government.
For example, it was on 20 December 1989, during the transition from Reagan to Bush, when Pan Am flight 103 en route from London to New York was destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew. In 2003, the Gaddafi regime in Libya admitted responsibility.
Two weeks later, on 4 January 1989, two Libyan fighter jets appeared to engage U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcats over the Gulf of Sidra and were shot down. These episodes appeared to be an effort by Gaddafi to take advantage of Washington’s distraction during the transition to take one last swipe at his nemesis, Reagan.
The transition from Clinton to Bush had the added complication of a 35-day period after the election when the winner was uncertain. And two events bracketed this period, posing challenges for the outgoing and incoming administrations. The first was the bombing of the USS Cole on 12 October 2000 in the harbor at Aden, Yemen, just a few weeks before the election. The domestic political crisis of the Florida recount that ensued following the voting on 8 November may have distracted the U.S. from organizing a response to this early al Qaeda attack on America.
Once in office, President George W. Bush was very quickly tested by another foreign policy crisis. On 1 April 2001, a mid-air collision between a U.S. surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet off Hainan Island resulted in the death of the Chinese pilot and the forced landing of the U.S. aircraft on Hainan. An international incident ensued as the 24 U.S. crew members were detained and interrogated by Chinese authorities until the U.S. delivered a suitably apologetic letter.
During the transition from Bush to Obama, two events occurred, the first of which almost started a war and the second of which did. On 26 November 2008, the Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist group launched a series of terrorist attacks over three days in Mumbai, India, killing 164 people and almost triggering war between India and LeT’s sponsor, Pakistan.
At the same time, the failure of Hamas to agree to the renewal of a cease-fire with Israel coupled with an escalation of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel triggered a three-week ground incursion into Gaza Strip by the Israeli Defense Forces, from 27 December through 8 January, ending just prior to President Obama’s inauguration.
Finally, there was the threat of a terrorist attack at Obama’s inauguration in 2008 by individuals associated with the Somali terrorist group, al Shabab. As head of intelligence analysis at NYPD at the time, I can recall the threat was taken very seriously. In fact, a statement was written for the president and put into his jacket pocket so that he had a pre-arranged script requesting the inauguration crowds to disperse, according to campaign strategist David Axelrod.
So what crises or threats might arise during the current transition? As CIA Director John Brennan noted last month, “We’re also looking at how some of our adversaries might try to take advantage of some type of transition that they think will lead to some discontinuity either in focus, or attention.”
North Korea certainly is at the top of the list of countries seeking to exploit an opportunity against the U.S. Another demonstration of their developing missile program or nuclear capabilities would be consistent with their past behavior, to make sure they get the full attention of the new president.
Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly tested the Obama Administration with moves in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria might seek to test NATO’s unity and commitment with some kind of provocation against the vulnerable Baltics. He might use hybrid warfare of combined cyber and special forces.
Then there is Iran, which has not moderated its behavior following agreement with the P5 over its nuclear weapons program. The government in Tehran is divided between hard liners and moderates, and its complicated domestic political situation could drive unexpected provocations. There have already been a number of such episodes, including Islamic Revolutionary Guard Navy fast boats harassing US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf. A miscalculation by the Iranians could trigger a crisis with the US, giving Iranian hardliners the upper hand and providing a rationale for both President Trump and Iran to walk away from the nuclear deal.
And China. After losing The Hague ruling on its claims to the South China Sea, China has been emphasizing economic diplomacy over threats, attempting to bring neighbors like the Philippines and Malaysia closer. The U.S. rejection of the TPP trade deal is a gift to China in this regard, as its own trade alternatives are now being developed. So China might be content to let events play out. Nevertheless, and particularly given Trump’s apparent plans to go after China on the trade front, more aggressive Chinese moves in the South China Sea cannot be ruled out.
Lastly, there are the terrorist groups – most notably, ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Syria. An attack against US interests at home or abroad during this period would be so provocative that it might provoke Trump to respond before potential contingencies are fully considered.
We don’t know, but we have entered some very treacherous waters…