Jul 19 2012

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October Surprise – 2012

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What is POTUS Planning?

It’s July, never to early to begin speculation about this year’s “October Surprise;” the quadrennial news event, which normally occurs close to Halloween, that has the power to change the dynamics of the presidential election.

The phenomenon has a powerful hold on the body politic with a legend rooted in fact and myth.

On Halloween 1968, President lyndon Johnson ordered a bombing halt to pursue peace talks with the North Vietnamese,  a de facto but ultimately futile effort to help Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign. In 1972, the October Surprise was launched by Henry Kissinger who announced on October 26th that “We believe that peace is at hand,” regarding negotiations with Hanoi to end the Vietnam War, sealing Nixon’s victory over the hapless McGovern campaign. This despite the fact that peace itself would require three months and another, intensive bombing campaign – all after the election.

In 1980, the Iranian hostage crisis spawned dueling October Surprise scenarios, with the Reagan campaign fearing news reports that the Carter administration would launch a military operation to free the hostages before the election, and a counter-conspiracy theory that the Reagan campaign had directly negotiated with the Iranians to prevent the release of the hostages until after election.

In 2000, days before the election, a prominent Democrat in Maine confirmed that George W. Bush had been arrested for a DUI in 1976.  Bush advisor Karl Rove has said that the revelation of the event led four million evangelical Christians to sit out the election, causing what was likely to be a comfortable Bush win into the closest presidential race in American history.

So, what about this year?

While either side has the potential to create an October Surprise, attention usually focuses on the incumbent, as they have the power of office to affect specific, sweeping action. And it is crucial to point out that the most effective October Surprises are never really planned or contrived, but rather the product of unavoidable decisions required in the national interest – actions in a time line that by happenstance parallels a national campaign.

For President Obama, that credible October Surprise could be Syria.

The situation in Syria is desperate and heart-breaking.  A near civil war between the Syrian people and its make-shift resistance army, and its repressive government. 14,000 dead, with more each day. An apathetic and divided international community, paralyzed by inaction.

Syria, as a nation-state, is disintegrating.

The single greatest threat in a slow death of the regime, or an outright Syrian government collapse, would be posed by Syria’s  arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. This includes lethal agents such as Sarin, Tabun and VX nerve gas, stored in depots spread out in 55 sites around the country. While the sites are closely guarded by Syrian security forces, a fraying or collapse of Syrian authority could open the sites to arms traffickers or terrorist organizations.  For his part, King Abdullah of Jordan has openly warned that in the current chaos could open the door for Al Qaeda to seize Syria’s weapons of mass destruction.

That, in turn, poses an unambiguous, clear and present danger to the security of the United States.

Americans, mired in joblessness, stagnation and debt, are looking for concerted action to fix the problems at home, not abroad.  But Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs)  in terrorist hands are an entirely different matter. It would be in the national interest of the United States to secure those weapons, or failing that, to destroy them unilaterally, to prevent the WMDs from falling into enemy hands.

Such a view would be shared by a majority citizens, regardless of Party. It would not be a partisan concern, but a national concern. And it would be the responsibility, not of the Democratic nominee for president, but of the President of the United States, to address the crisis.

Constitutionally necessary and politically beneficial.

American military action to secure Syrian WMDs would be a game-changer in an election where POTUS’ only viable course of action is to disqualify his opponent. It would demonstrate active, forceful leadership by the President in defense of vital American interests. It would change the conversation from the economy, to national security, and raise questions about Mitt Romney’s readiness to be Commander in Chief in real-time, simply by exercising the powers of the office.

Romney, for his part, would be constrained from criticism both as a matter of custom (don’t criticize the President when troops are in harms way) and substance (how can you be against securing WMDs?).

Moreover, the operation to secure the WMDs would be focused and specific. No nation-building here.  Get in and get out. Secure the stores or destroy them. The operation could take days to a few weeks. The president and the operation would dominate the headlines, and so long as the military action met with a pre-sold threshold of success, it could have the power to change the election from a referendum on Barack Obama’s record, to a referendum on Romney’s experience.

Is this actually possible?

Sure, forget politics for a moment.

As a matter of policy, the White House warned the Syrian government on the use of chemical weapons against their own people as recently as yesterday.

There is concern in the region about the Syrian stockpiles, particularly by Syria’s neighbors. In addition, there is widespread unease that should Syria devolve into chaos, that the Israelis would launch raids to prevent Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations in the region from obtaining a fresh capability. That hypothetical attack on an Arab country would have broad and serious ramifications throughout the region, fresh off democratic elections that have brought Islamist parties to power, and particularly with Iran, which depends on Syria as an ally and conduit to its terrorist partners in Lebanon.

It almost makes a US military move in Syria appear prudent.

But is there any evidence that the US government is preparing for such a contingency?

Well, from a national security perspective, we can certainly hope so. However, if there is overt operational planning for a “seize or destroy” operation, it is not yet public.

Interestingly, the US has been gradually augmenting its forces in the Persian Gulf, adding minesweepers and drone subs to a powerful task force built around two aircraft carriers. The Air Force has deployed it’s 5th generation F-22 to the region, and the Army maintains two brigades of troops in Kuwait.

According to the Obama administration, the deployment has been justified by increasing Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz in response to international sanctions that are squeezing the Iranian economy hard – sanction put in place in response to the Iranian nuclear program. But a good chess player would put the forces there for another reason as well; to keep the Iranians in check if the US needed to take action against Iran’s ally in Damascus.

For now, its nothing more than talk and conjecture.

In 2004, left wing blogs were obsessed with a conspiracy that the Bush administration was preparing to announce the capture or death of Osama bin Laden close to the election. Preposterously, some even believed that bin Laden had been captured and was “on ice,” with Karl Rove waiting for a politically advantageous moment to announce bin Laden’s detention.

As we now know, it was all bunk.

Will the responsibilities of office in a dangerous and uncertain world provide a fresh and compelling narrative to reelect President Obama?

We’ll see.






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