by Frank James ( Not the dead one )
The idea of an October surprise is now ingrained in presidential politics, ever since the 1980 election when Ronald Reagan operatives were alleged to have worked with Iranian revolutionaries to delay the release of U.S. hostages in Iran.
Some Democrats have actually wondered if part of President George W. Bush’s push in recent weeks to capture Osama bin Laden has been in part to deliver an October surprise that would redound to the benefit of McCain and Republicans generally.
Capturing bin Laden would certainly be a boon for McCain as it would for the nation and the world. Running down bin Laden would also go a long way to helping save Bush’s legacy.
Bin Laden figures into the October-surprise concerns of Joseph Nye, a foreign policy expert at Harvard University and former assistant Defense Secretary. But he’s more concerned about a jack-in-the-box appearance by bin Laden of the sort that happened four years ago.
On Oct. 29, 2004, four days before the last election, Al Jazeera aired an 18-minute video tape in which Osama bin Laden addressed the American people and threatened further retaliation and a desire to bankrupt the U.S. In the first poll after that tape was released, Bush opened up a six-point lead over Sen. John Kerry. The deputy director of the CIA commented that, “Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the president.”
Since the election turned on 120,000 votes in Ohio, it is plausible bin Laden was able to affect the election. From the Al Qaeda leader’s point of view, Bush’s policies were more useful for his efforts to recruit supporters than Kerry’s might have been. Bin Laden is involved in a civil war within Islam. He wants the U.S. to pursue policies that create the appearance of a clash of civilizations. Anything that polarizes the mainstream of Muslim opinion helps his recruiting. As the deputy director for analysis at the CIA commented at the time: “Certainly, he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”
From that point of view, Barack Obama must be unsettling for bin Laden. An African-American with a father born in Kenya and a childhood spent partly in Indonesia presents a very different face to the world. A recent BBC poll of 22 countries found that if the world could vote, Obama would win in a landslide. The pro-Obama margin varied from 82 percentage points in Kenya to 9 points in India.
The sudden appearance of a new bin Laden video is obviously something outside the control of both campaigns.
There’s an argument to be made that it could actually help Obama since it would allow him to hit hard on his argument that the reason bin Laden is able to send out videos is because the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq drew resources away from the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan where many intelligence officials believe bin Laden remains hidden.
Nye is correct to be on the alert for a new bin Laden message. Al Qaeda has been seriously degraded since 9/11 because of the efforts of the U.S. and its allies in the West, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Still, all indications are that Al Qaeda wants to show it’s still relevant. What better way to do that than to issue a new video right before the first Tuesday in November in an attempt to shake up the American presidential election?