WASHINGTON -- President Bush's decision to take military action against Iraq in the final days of his White House tenure has raised questions about timing and motive. Why, it is being asked, couldn't he have waited and left the decision to incoming President Clinton?
Suspicions, among Democrats particularly, are rampant. Did he want to commit Clinton to a tough posture toward Saddam Hussein by ordering the air strikes before Clinton's inauguration? Or was it an act of vengeance toward the Iraqi dictator he once compared to Hitler, tried to depose, and who will nevertheless survive Bush in office?
The second point probably has more validity than the first, but isn't the whole story. It may seem a moot point, but the fact is that George Bush is and will continue to be president of the United States until next Wednesday at noon, when Bill Clinton takes the oath of office. Until then, he retains all the powers of the presidency, a fact that is sometimes lost sight of amid all the focus on the newly elected commander-in-chief.
Beyond our shores, where the relinquishing of power is much swifter and often violent, many people have difficulty understanding this concept. It is important, therefore, that the outgoing president keep the presidency the center of decision-making up to the moment he becomes an alumnus of the office.
In this, Clinton has adopted the wisest course, declining to indicate the slightest role in decision-making until the job is his. Repeated attempts by reporters covering the transition in Little Rock to find out whether Clinton was in on the decision to bomb Iraq were turned aside. They were told only that President-elect Clinton had been kept informed and fully supported President Bush's decision.
The notion that the air strikes will commit the new president to a particular course of action is almost irrelevant. Clinton had already said he was committed to enforcement of the United Nations resolutions imposing economic and military restrictions on Iraq. He is free, once in office, to choose his own means of keeping that commitment.
The matter of a president acting like a president in the final week of his administration has also raised the question of the length of the transition. Bush has already complained that 11 weeks is too long to require a president to keep the Oval Office chair warm.
Until Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in for his third term in 1941, the inauguration date was six weeks later, on March 4. Among those arguing for a second reduction in the transition time is Professor Stephen E. Ambrose, a historian of the Eisenhower and Nixon presidencies. He told National Public Radio the day after the strikes against Iraq that the inaugural date should and probably will be moved again.
At the same time, though, complaints are being heard that the current time frame is inadequate for a conscientious president-elect to put his new Cabinet and sub-Cabinet in place. The takeover by a president of one party from a president of the other entails far more than two individuals exchanging hats.
The reality is that it becomes necessary for the new president to ask some officials of the old administration to stay aboard for a while longer or leave the permanent bureaucracy in charge of some agencies for months after the new president takes office.
It's likely, therefore, that the current 11-week transition period will remain in force as a not entirely satisfactory arrangement.
In the best of worlds, it is too long for a departing president who still holds the constitutional power of his office but knows his successor is looking over his shoulder. And it is too short for an incoming president to recover from a grueling election campaign, thoroughly examine the pool of job candidates for the key appointments that will give shape to his administration, and make the wisest choices.
Most presidential nominees, looking optimistically ahead, appoint transition planners well before Election Day. But there is only so much they can do. And the election results often become a factor in who gets offered which job.
So the current imperfect process of passing the baton of power is likely to continue, with the president remaining president to the last moment of his term.