In the NFL, if the defensive team commits a penalty after they've crouched into their stances at the line of scrimmage, and the officials throw the penalty flag but do not blow the whistle, this is known as a “free play”. The quarterback of the team on offense can take a greater than normal risk with the football in executing a play, secure in the knowledge that any error can be reversed simply by accepting the penalty once the play is blown dead.
Because I’m not an expert on Middle East conflict, I can apply this particular football analogy to the fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians without any hesitation. The kind of myopia I have regarding our foreign policy removes any effect that in-depth knowledge of the history between Israel and Palestine could have on how I see things.
The United States government is in that peculiar zone of inaction that comes between the end of one presidential term and the beginning of the next. To my diplomatically untrained mind, this period seems very similar to the moments that exist from the time the football official throws the flag on a “free play” and the time he blows the whistle.
It just strikes me that this deadly exchange between these neighboring countries in an area of the world where our country seems to spend an inordinate amount of our attention, energy, and resources could not have come at a better time if they were looking to put the U.S. on the spot.
President Bush is busy packing. President-Elect Obama is strolling on the beach, or hacking up a golf course somewhere in Hawaii. Congressmen and Congresswomen are filling their trash cans with discarded wrapping paper and standing in line in stores to return things like the rest of the country. It is the press who have thrown the metaphorical penalty flag on this battle, but our nation's leadership does not seem to be in a position to blow the whistle just yet.
In a football contest, one of the things the officials are charged with is keeping control of the game. One of the ways they do this is by assessing penalties on egregious behavior, especially the little skirmishes that develop between linemen who have been ramming into each other all day.
Too many unchecked skirmishes lead to bench clearing brawls, where entire teams can end up fighting each other over a conflict that originally involved two individual players.
I would hope, in this age of communication devices so powerful that they can almost predict when you need to contact someone, that the people milling around President Bush can somehow contact the people milling around President-Elect Obama and figure out whatever it is they need to figure out between them so that President Bush can haul his whistle out.
Because a world-wide, bench clearing brawl is the last thing we need right now.