What would a presidential election be without pondering the potential for an October surprise? Under the standard scenario, an incumbent president uses the power of his office to engineer a foreign-policy success that burnishes his image going into the final weeks before an election. The possibility of such Machiavellian manipulation was barely discussed in September, when President Obama seemed to be lengthening his lead in the polls. Now that the gap in the race to the White House appears to be closing, October-surprise speculation is on the rise.
Here are four scenarios the administration might mull over to generate some favorable, late-breaking news.
1. Strike Libyan Terrorists. Hitting targets in pursuit of those who organized and executed the 9/11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is quite possible. Indeed, shortly after the foreign media reported that the U.S. intelligence community is compiling a Libyan hit list. Recently, administration officials confirmed that strikes are under active consideration.
Technically, taking out terrorists in Libya isn’t an October surprise. U.S. presidents are expected to go after terrorists that go after Americans. The public wants the perpetrators brought to justice, one way or the other.
The problem for the president is that such a strike is unlikely to quell the questions being raised over how the administration handled security for U.S. personnel in Libya and how it responded to the attack that killed four Americans. Recently, a heated hearing on Capitol Hill produced more unfavorable sound bites, including testimony by one former official that the security in Benghazi was kept “artificially low.”
Rather than hype how things are going in Libya, the White House would probably be happier at this point if the issue faded away. Also, there is no telling how an independent U.S. operation might affect conditions inside the country or how progressives might react if they feel the president is broadening the war on terror rather than ending it as he promised.
A U.S. operation in Libya might be an appropriate act of justice or an effective counterterrorism act to stem Al Qaeda’s influence, but it is not likely to give the president’s numbers a bump.
2. Make a Deal with the Devil. Might Washington make a last-minute deal with Tehran that gets the regime to suspend its nuclear-enrichment program? Progress toward removing the threat of a nuclear Iran would certainly be a signature foreign-policy success.
Iran has denied it is getting ready to make a deal. So has the White House. But speculation persists, with some Iranian officials sending mixed messages.
Even if a deal were cut, Mr. Obama’s challenger could simply argue that Tehran is playing rope-a-dope—pressing the White House to ease sanctions now and resuming its nuclear-weapons program just a bit down the line.
Hard to see how, even if a deal materializes, it would move any pollster’s bubble.
3. Get the Number-One Terrorist. During Bush’s reelection campaign, the biggest October-surprise rumor was that the wily president was just waiting for October to get Bin Laden. In retrospect, we know how silly that was. Terrorists are elusive targets. You pretty much have to get them when you find them. This is becoming more true everyday, as transnational terrorist groups focus more on adopting “operational security” measures and implementing counterintelligence programs to keep from being found.
Certainly President Obama would love to get his hands on Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current CEO of Al Qaeda. But, if the calendar does work out right for when he goes down, odds are it will be more of a coincidence than a manufactured surprise.
4. Smooth Sailing in the South China Sea. All the fireworks in the Middle East have distracted American attention from rising tensions in the Pacific—where every day, it seems, two or more countries make threats over obscure and barren islands. Just the other day, Forbes reported sales of Japanese cars in China have plummeted due to ill will over who owns the miniscule Diaoyu Islands.
The president could sweep in like a latter-day Teddy Roosevelt and calm the Asian waters, chalking up another Nobel. That is pretty far-fetched. If the White House had really wanted to “pivot to Asia” and solve some disputes, it would have started doing so months ago.
Further, solving a problem that no one is paying attention to doesn’t help you all that much at the polls.
Of course, there’s no end to the number of October scenarios that can be dreamed up—each more far-fetched than the last. But just about any October surprise is a stretch when it comes to intentionally impacting the outcome of an election. Engineering a real surprise that would produce clear, predictable results is a lot easier in the conspiracy world than the real one.
In the end, the American people would rather hear real debates about real issues than read manufactured headlines.
James Jay Carafano is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The National Interest.