Politics & Policy

October Surprises

Will the Obama administration tackle Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

In less than 60 days, the Democrats will probably suffer historic losses in both the House and the Senate. The eleventh-hour campaigning of the now-unpopular Barack Obama on behalf of endangered congressional candidates will not change much. In fact, most embattled Democratic candidates don’t want the president to even set foot in their districts.

The public knows that the stimulus packages are played out. Unemployment rose, instead of falling as promised. All that is left are the higher taxes due next year to pay back the borrowed money that was squandered.

Those in Congress who went along with the Obama borrowing agenda now find themselves on the wrong side of the American people on almost every issue — from federalized health care, higher taxes, and bailouts to proposed cap-and-trade and amnesty.

Could things still turn around before November?

The Democrats’ best hope is a major crisis overseas that would rally the American public around their commander-in-chief. Usually, cynical journalists refer to an unexpected autumn bombing run, missile launch, or presidential announcement of a cease-fire or needed escalation as an “October surprise.”

These are the “wag the dog” moments that might turn angry Americans’ thoughts elsewhere. And they have a checkered history that began long before August 1998, when critics alleged that Bill Clinton, before the midterm elections, had ordered bombing missions in Afghanistan and Sudan to distract public attention from his embarrassing dalliance with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. He looked decisive and presidential; his Republican opponents looked nitpicking and petty.

Abraham Lincoln could have lost the 1864 election to peace candidate Gen. George McClellan, given that over the summer Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had almost ruined the Army of the Potomac without taking the Confederate capital of Richmond. Then, suddenly, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta on Sept. 2. Overnight, Lincoln went from an inept bumbler to a winning commander-in-chief. An exasperated McClellan never recovered.

Less than two weeks before the 1972 election, national security advisor Henry Kissinger, without warning, announced that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam (it was not). Democratic nominee George McGovern would have lost anyway to Richard Nixon, but his peace candidacy abruptly appeared redundant.

Suspicious liberals were convinced that in 2004 George W. Bush would pull off some sort of surprise to distract voters from the bad news in Iraq. A year before the election, a paranoid Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, floated a crazy suggestion: “Do you suppose that the Bush administration has Osama bin Laden hidden away somewhere and will bring him out before the election?”

In panic over the depressing polls, Obama is now scrambling to find any good news overseas that he can, to turn voter attention away from near-10 percent unemployment and record debt.

He has just addressed the nation about the long-scheduled troop reductions in Iraq. And suddenly, all Mideast leaders are now equally welcome at the White House in hopes of reaching a dramatic Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough that would showcase his presidential leadership before the midterm elections.

Neither of these events is likely to change things in November. Only a headline crisis could rally Americans around their now-unpopular commander-in-chief and his beleaguered supporters in Congress. What would that entail?

Most probably something like a showdown with soon-to-be-nuclear and widely despised Iran.

As a candidate, Obama criticized the Bush administration for not reaching out and talking with Iran’s theocratic leadership. As president, Obama has done that. He even muted his criticism of the brutal Iranian crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations after the 2009 election. But Obama soon found that the Iranians saw his outreach as appeasement, and so only increased their breakneck efforts to get a bomb.

Now everyone from the Israelis to the Sunni Arab nations is pressuring the United States to do something before a radical and nuclear Iran changes the complexion of the entire Middle East. If the erstwhile peace candidate Barack Obama were to confront Iran, conservatives might well support his resolve. Then Democratic candidates would find a more united nation that was suddenly far more worried about Mideast armageddon than unemployment and record deficits. Unlike past October surprises, in this one the pro-Obama media would probably be far less cynical in its coverage of presidential motives.

But Iran won’t go nuclear in the next two months. So let us hope that the current unpopular administration waits for a while before deciding between the rotten choice of using military force against Tehran and the even worse alternative of a nuclear Iran.

– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.

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