Are we due for an “October surprise?” Ever since October 1972, when Henry Kissinger, then Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, announced that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam, an October surprise – or the impending possibility of one – has been a perennial feature of American political life. Will a dramatic foreign-policy development tip the electoral balance this year?
Several factors have converged to make this more probable than in any recent election.
Consider the extraordinary way foreign powers have been lining up in the election. Thus far, Barack Obama has been winning this particular nondelegate count. “We like Mr. Obama and we hope he will win the election,” is what Ahmed Yousef, a ranking official of the Islamic terrorist organization Hamas, declared in April. Gleb Pavlovsky, a key adviser to both Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, has called John McCain the worst choice and Sen. Obama the best – “less tied” to the Cold War.
Hugo Chávez, the radical socialist president of Venezuela, has not endorsed Sen. Obama so directly. But he has been busy lambasting John McCain as “a man of war.” Over in Iran, the intelligence ministry has put out a public-service television broadcast in which a fictional villain, who just happens to be named John McCain, is portrayed “orchestrat[ing] numerous conspiracies against the Islamic Republic.” North Korea’s state-controlled newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, has scored Sen. McCain along with others in “U.S. ruling quarters” for trying to mount “a base and ridiculous challenge” to North Korea as part of “a bid to strangle it.”
There is a growing pro-Obama/anti-McCain axis. Why is this happening and what does it portend?
Answering the first question is simple. The contest between Sens. McCain and Obama represents the final nail in the coffin of bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, the final leftward lurch in a shift fitfully underway in the Democratic Party ever since the presidential candidacy of George McGovern in 1972. Mr. McCain – a supporter of the invasion of Iraq, and a proponent of the surge long before it was a glimmer in President Bush’s eye – will be facing a candidate who has pledged to pull all American combat brigades out of Iraq no matter what the Joint Chiefs of Staff tell him, or what is happening on the ground.
The war is a central issue, but it is not the only one. Stark differences over Iraq are accompanied by divisions over the full gamut of foreign-policy issues, from free trade to the wisdom of talking to hostile dictators. At stake for many foreign leaders is the direction of American policies that bear vitally on their own security.
A terrorist kingpin like Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas, will not sleep particularly peacefully with a president in the White House like John McCain who describes himself, as he did last week, as Hamas’s “worst nightmare.” And dictators like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il may believe it will be far easier to deal with an American president like Mr. Obama, who has pledged to talk with them no matter what they say or do.
The obvious possibility flowing from all this is that one or more of these players might do everything in its power to hurt Mr. McCain and help Mr. Obama. Dramatic action keyed to our internal politics is, after all, already a page in some of our adversaries’ playbooks. The idea is certainly in the DNA of the Iranians, who in 1979 held American hostages in their grip up until the very moment Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.
In 2004, Osama bin Laden’s television appearance only a weekend before the presidential election may have been a naked attempt to influence the outcome by reminding voters that he was still at large and President Bush’s policy had failed. Even more to the point is the massive terror attack al Qaeda launched in Madrid that same year, killing 191 people, just days before the Spanish elections. Spanish socialists won and promptly pulled their soldiers out of Iraq, satisfying the terrorists’ demands.
Might al Qaeda try something similar here? The attempt to use violence to tilt the American electorate one way or the other could easily backfire. But there is the ever-present possibility of miscalculation; operatives making plans while dwelling in caves in Waziristan may not have a particularly nuanced understanding of the ebb and flow of American public opinion.
Insurgents in Iraq, on the other hand, are careful and well-informed students of our politics. They have timed some of their bombings and massacres to coincide with political developments here. The sharp spike in violence in the run-up to Gen. David Petraeus’s testimony last September is a case in point. The single largest terrorist attack of the war – killing a staggering 500 people and wounding 1,500 in a rural area near the border with Syria – occurred almost on the eve of his congressional appearance.
Come this autumn, with the future of the U.S. presence in Iraq before the electorate, the stakes will be that much higher and the incentives to wreak havoc will be immense. The most obvious bet for the insurgents is that an uptick in violence in Iraq would hurt the “pro-war” candidate and help elect someone who has pledged to withdraw.
Leaving aside the impact of all this on the presidential race itself, these prospects should be of primary concern to intelligence analysts and policy makers. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have already made plain their deep anxiety over the possibility of an autumn attack. Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno – the two officers with the full weight of the Iraq war on their shoulders – should also be on heightened alert for danger in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. The price tag of our country’s deep divisions over foreign policy might prove very steep.
Mr. Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary, writes daily forconnectingthedots.us.com.