October/November Surprise?

The Bush folks are clearly willing to go the extra mile down some dark alley in their own electoral self-interest.

Mon Aug. 9, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

By Tom Engelhardt

Among Bush administration opponents -- and not just those on the Internet either -- there's a deep-seated, Florida-inspired, and not unreasonable fear of an October or even November 2nd "surprise." Over the last year, for instance, there have been spasms of Diebold-mania (in honor of one of the Republican-donor firms making the paper-trail-less, touch-screen-computer voting machines, considered quite capable of producing a Florida II). Or what about those "felon lists," endlessly purged in Baby Bush's state of perfectly un-felonesque African-American Floridians but not of (usually Republican-voting) Hispanics, felonious or otherwise? Michael Moore is heading for the state on Election Day, camera in hand, but who isn't?

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Then there have been those conspiracy-theory rumors that Osama bin Laden is already an administration captive held in a spiderhole somewhere in Pakistan until needed at the end of October? Or is al-Qaeda perhaps preparing a massive, last moment terrorist attack in the United States meant to throw the election to the "other fanatic," the one most likely in his second term to continue to produce a terrorist dreamworld? Or will a last second Red Alert turn the attention of voters to the Presidential column, or will that alert even be the excuse for the Bush administration to postpone the elections?

These and other rumors, theories, fears, and end-of-the-Republic-as-we-know-it scenarios have not just been flying around the Web, but making their way into the mainstream media. For instance, Robert Kuttner of the Boston Globe and the American Prospect magazine just wrote up three election scenarios to fear, each chilling in its own way; while in a recent column (Fear of Fraud), Paul Krugman of the New York Times, regularly on the mark, took out after the dangers of touch-screen voting as well as Jeb Bush's vote-vetting scams. According to the Times' David M. Halbfinger, John Kerry is taking the possibility of November 2nd surprises seriously indeed and is already ramping up his legal teams to duke it out in battleground states where results seem in any way suspicious. ("Aides to Kerry say the campaign is taking the unprecedented step of setting up a nationwide legal network under its own umbrella, rather than relying, as in the past, on lawyers associated with state Democratic parties… 'A million African-Americans disenfranchised in the last election,' he said at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia…, 'Well, we're not just going to sit there and wait for it to happen. On Election Day in your cities, my campaign will provide teams of election observers and lawyers to monitor elections, and we will enforce the law.'")

And while the administration undoubtedly isn't holding Osama bin Laden for just the right moment, there are more modest recent examples of its willingness to go that extra mile down some dark alley in its own electoral self-interest. Consider, as a start, an interesting graphic recently posted by Juliusblog (and spotted by an eagle-eyed Tomdispatch reader). It combines the clever, ever-sliding Bush approval chart at Professor Pollkatz's Pool of Polls with the major administration alerts into a pattern that looks suspiciously self-serving indeed.

Or take the most recent Orange Alert, which came just after the Democratic Convention as Kerry was setting out on the campaign trail and was based on a series of arrests of al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan, the first of which, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the FBI's twenty-second "Most Wanted" terrorist, was announced on the day of Kerry's acceptance speech. To be more precise, it was announced by Faisal Saleh Hayyat, Pakistan's interior minister, at that top Pakistani hour for making crucial announcements -- midnight (but acceptance speech day halfway across the world.). Actually, to be yet more accurate, the arrest itself had been made not that day but four days earlier. What's surprising here is not the four-day lag, but the speed with which the announcement was made -- a kind of unseemly tip-off to any al-Qaeda figures connected to Ghailani. As former CIA operative Robert Baer commented on the timing of the announcement: "It makes no sense to make the announcement then. Presumably, everything [Al Qaeda] does is compartmented. By announcing to everybody in the world that we have this guy, and he is talking, you have to assume that you shoot tactics. To keep these guys off-balance, a lot of this stuff should be kept in secret. You get no benefit from announcing an arrest like this."

All this was explained recently by John Judis, Spencer Ackerman, and Massoud Ansari in a New Republic magazine piece, Has TNR'S Prediction Come True? July Surprised. They add:

"Last month, the New Republic reported that the Bush administration was pressuring the Pakistanis to deliver a "high-value target" (HVT) in time for the November elections (July Surprise?) According to an official with Pakistan's powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), a White House aide told ISI chief Ehsan ul-Haq during a spring visit to Washington that 'it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any] HVT were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July,' during the convention. When asked this week if the announcement of Ghailani's capture on July 29 confirmed TNR's reporting, National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack told the Los Angeles Times, 'There is no truth to that statement.'"

More striking yet was the announcement that followed. As part of the ramping up of its Orange Alert, the administration announced that an al-Qaeda computer expert and techno-whiz had just been arrested with terrifying material on his computer, and then, when the New York Times learned his name, evidently confirmed it to the paper. The catch was, as Reuters recently revealed, when Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan was arrested, he agreed to turn double agent -- and so became that rarest of all creatures, a potential mole inside al-Qaeda. Soon thereafter, his cover was blown. "'The whole thing smacks of either incompetence or worse,' said Tim Ripley, a security expert who writes for Jane's Defence publications.'You have to ask: what are they doing compromising a deep mole within al Qaeda, when it's so difficult to get these guys in there in the first place?... Running agents within a terrorist organisation is the Holy Grail of intelligence agencies. And to have it blown is a major setback which negates months and years of work, which may be difficult to recover."

In this we certainly have a nasty brew of remarkable incompetence and manipulative acts aimed at helping George Bush get reelected -- the MO of this administration for at least the last year or so. Can there be any question that the Bush men would consider almost any scenario that might advance their candidate's second-term fortunes? I think not. But their incompetence shouldn't be overlooked either; nor should we focus too exclusively on such scenarios ourselves. In that focus lies a lurking fatalism which has its own dangers. It leads to an overestimation of the Machiavellian abilities of the somewhat inept Busheviks, treating them as if they were a comic-book cohort of X-men, superhuman in their ability to grab fate decisively by the throat, reorganize reality to suit their needs, and manipulate the American public. In fact, if you think about it a moment, the Bush administration has proven far less competent since it tossed the Iraqi dice than either its top officials or most of its opponents ever conceived possible. And there's a surprise for you!

Whatever surprises this administration is planning for the coming months, it's hard to imagine an administration that's been as regularly caught off-guard by events as this one. Reality has been biting back with surprising ferocity. Among their manipulations that haven't worked out quite as planned you would have to include the front-loading of the economy (those tax rebates now long gone) and the passing of Iraqi "sovereignty" in a two-day early June "surprise" that managed to shove Iraq onto the inside pages of the papers and deep into the nightly news for a month -- but in both cases (see below), reality shoved back in surprising ways. Not only is there no guarantee that an administration electoral surprise will work as planned, but it's a reasonable guess that, of the surprises that lie ahead, the majority aren't likely to fall Bush's way. These could be a long three months for Karl Rove & Co.

I'm sure all of you could come up with your own lists of ways this administration has been and may continue to be ambushed, but here's a little starter-list of my own -- ten surprises this administration proved remarkably unprepared for.

1. "Mission Accomplished": On May 2, 2003, Bush officials halted, the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier on its way home, some thirty miles off San Diego, so that our warrior President, instead of walking up a gangplank, could arrive far more dramatically by jet, mug with the troops, get photo ops galore, and then address his "fellow Americans" on the carrier deck against the backdrop of a specially prepared banner that proclaimed "mission accomplished." The first sentences of his now-infamous speech included: "[M]ajor combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country."

At the time, it was meant as, and in our then-supine media generally hailed as, the crowning moment in a pre-electoral campaign guaranteed to nail down a second-term in office. Most observers could already imagine the election-season ads (as well as the pathetic Democrats slinking back to their holes). So here we are only a year and three months later, a mere blink even in political time, and every aspect of this scenario has been ambushed. Hardly a bit of it remains. The landing on the deck, so heroic looking then, proved in the end but a reminder of the President's mission-unaccomplished Vietnam-era service in and around the Texas Air National Guard, a record that continues to dog him and has become central to John Kerry's campaign.

As for that "Mission Accomplished" banner, only six months later, the President felt so pressed that he denied (wrongly) it had anything to do with him or his administration. ("The 'Mission Accomplished' sign, of course, was put up by the members of the USS Abraham Lincoln, saying that their mission was accomplished. I know it was attributed somehow to some ingenious advance man from my staff -- they weren't that ingenious, by the way.") As for those major combat operations that were over, hundreds of dead Americans and thousands of dead Iraqis later, Marines have been battling "hand to hand" with Shiite rebels in the streets of Najaf in combat major enough to involve tanks, helicopters, and jets bombing in a major urban area. The front page of the Sunday New York Times had a photo of smoke and flames in Najaf with the caption: "Battles yesterday between an American-Iraqi force and a militant Shiite militia in Najaf left much of the downtown area in ruins."

Most of Iraq, in fact, has blinked off any map of American control and looks ready to explode; our Iraqi leader, Iyad Allawi, seems now to be little more than the mayor of parts of Baghdad, and as for that "reconstruction," here's a little description from the Los Angeles Times of life in the Baghdad slum of Sadr city today where jobs, electricity, water, and most everything else remain in desperately short supply:

"Typhoid and hepatitis E are running rampant through Sadr City this summer, as residents rely heavily on a sewage-tainted water supply to endure temperatures of 115 degrees and up… 'If I showed you the water in our house, you would not believe it,' said Taiha Abdel Reda, 45. 'We turn on the tap and the water has a foul smell and we see threads of [human waste] in it.'

"Those who end up hospitalized don't fare much better. Nuwesri said his hospital often uses water that's 'just as contaminated as the water in the homes.'"

The set of linked insurgencies in Iraq that have driven the American occupiers to complete (if violent) distraction may prove the greatest "May, June, July, August, September, October…" surprise in the books. As the insurgency continues in one unexpected form or another to drive the administration willy-nilly toward the November polls, the story is likely to remain at or near the front pages of our newspapers and the top of the night's news. Between now and November, despite a clear American decision to crush the Shiite opposition immediately, things are only likely to get worse. Stay tuned on this one.

2. Those missing jobs: As Larry Elliot, the British Guardian's economics editor, reported this week (using a quote stronger than those found in most U.S. papers): "The 32,000 July increase in non-farm payrolls -- described as 'shockingly low' by one financial analyst -- was almost 200,000 down on market predictions and led to a sharp sell-off in shares and the dollar." This week's dismal job report, commented Jonathan Weisman and Mike Allen of the Washington Post, "took administration and Bush campaign officials by surprise. Bush's aides had been expecting a number that several called 'decent.' Bush officials had been reveling in Kerry's failure to make notable gains in polls after last week's Democratic convention. The jobs number abruptly ended the celebration." Talk about being blindsided by reality.

The Bush campaign was left with dueling headlines, as in the Post, that read like this: Payroll Growth Slows Dramatically in July vs. Bush Assures Voters the Economy Is Improving, with the President still on the stump turning that corner. Peter Preston, also of the Guardian, wrote:

"Stumping round in the wake of Bush and Kerry last week, I was struck by how strained the President looks, and how thin his message sounds. Does the tale of a million jobs created bring crowds to their feet? No: especially after July, it shuffles into silence. Tax cuts? You've had them. Add in health and education spiels which might have been lifted entire from his 2000 election manifesto and the rest is tired rhetoric. 'Four more years, four more years'… It is not much of a pitch, and he seems to know it. There's an anxiety about his campaign you can cut with a Bowie knife."

3. The wimpy Democrats turn into an opposition: This is clearly a case of the vole that roared. After all, the Democrats had been declared hardly even a party and written off as dead back when Bush landed on that carrier. The "mission" had been "accomplished," or so it was then believed, as much against the Democrats (and the media) as against Saddam Hussein. They had, until then, proved incapable of mounting an opposition to anything or discovering anyone who might be a "viable" candidate against the President in 2004. They were without a hope, a prayer, or any evidence of a backbone; and yet a little over a year later, they emerged from their convention (thank you, Howard Dean; thank you, Dennis Kucinich; thank you, Al Sharpton) angry, unified, determined to win the election, determined not to let Florida or any other state be stolen from them, determined not to be wimpified in some tank turret, and determined not to be terrorized by a war-on-terror president. If this wasn't a July surprise, I don't know what one might be. That any Democratic candidate, no less a candidate little beloved in the Party (as the T-shirt of a Dean delegate put it, "I am in an arranged marriage with John Kerry.") can be running slightly ahead of George Bush in the polls right now is one of the less believable events of recent times. But believe it. The Republicans are starting to.

4. Oil prices: Here's a genuine ambush. Remember when early summer oil prices peaked at about $40 a barrel and then were supposed to fall. The Saudis swore they would make it so, but here we are with CNN posting headlines like "Oil could touch $50" (A piece that began: "When the price of oil crossed $40 a barrel earlier this year, it generated nervous headlines and anxiety on Wall Street and likely threw cold water on the U.S. economy. Now it seems that $40 a barrel may have been just a step on the way to even higher prices, with $50 or more a distinct possibility in the short term, according to some analysts.") Oil bad news is coming from every direction. There's the Yukos oil company disaster in Russia; those endlessly sabotaged pipelines in Iraq; Nigerian oil strikes and who knows what else. Conspiracy theorists could have a field day with this, but Juan Cole explains the situation quite cogently. My question is: Where are all those airlifted-out Saudis when the Bush administration really needs them?

5. Leaks and memoirs: An administration with a reputation for being the most "disciplined" and "on message" in history, for keeping the press on the shortest leash since Abu Ghraib, has suddenly found itself charging madly into the valley of leaks. Starting in the Spring it seemed that every battened-down sector of the Washington bureaucracy had sprung a few, while former administration members began kissing-and-telling directly onto 60 Minutes and so to the top of bestseller lists: Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, terrorism "tsar" Richard Clarke, the CIA's "Anonymous" (whose unflattering book just hit bestseller lists this weekend), and the various leakers and interviewees to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward for his Plan of Attack, not to speak of Joseph Wilson's Niger uranium oped in the New York Times (and subsequent book). There was former Centcom commander Anthony Zinni denouncing the administration's Iraq policies, former Pentagon official Karen Kwiattowski denouncing the Pentagon neocons all over the Internet, and various former spooks, military men, State Department officials, and intelligence analysts all spilling their guts. There were memoirists to the left of them, leakers to the right of them…

In the meantime, just when the administration thought that they had at least successfully set up their own private prison system out there in the imperial darkness beyond the reach of any court, including the Supremes, beyond the sight, no less oversight of anyone, they were tripped up by modern technology -- the digital camera, email, and the Internet -- and a single reporter who had done the same thing over in the Vietnam era. First of course, there were those high-tech postcards from the edge ("Hi, Mom! Here I am riding camels and creating dog piles. Wish you were here! Love…"), and then there was Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker magazine running a one-man leak brigade on torture in the provinces, and then, of course, there were those administration torture memos and reports which just began oozing out, and then the Supremes jumped in… drip, drip, drip…

6. What if you threw a coronation party and no one came (part 1): At the end of July, just after a Reagan (Ron) appeared before the Democratic convention to urge a November vote for stem-cell research (and so for Kerry), Republican operatives held out hope that Nancy Reagan would take to the Republican stage in August in a kind of riposte to her son. ("Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie made it clear today that he salivates at the prospect of Mrs. Reagan in New York.") But stories soon began to surface indicating that she would not attend the convention (and that the blindsided Bush team was teed off about this). Though she has since pledged "150% support" for Bush's reelection, she continues to decline to put her body on the line for the President who refuses to support her on stem-cell research. Imagine, then, that the only Reagan who has entered the electoral fray this campaign season has just written an article for Esquire magazine entitled The Case Against George W. Bush. Talk about surprises, who woulda thunk it?

Kerry has just seized the stem-cell issue (and support for breakthrough scientific research) and is launching a series of "high-profile events" around it this week. "'This is an issue with legs,' said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who has measured 70 percent support nationwide for embryonic stem cell research" -- though not so long ago this was assumed to be an issue of little political use except as Bush administration red-meat for its fundamentalist base.

7. What if you threw a coronation and nobody came (part 2): On Saturday, Robin Wright of the Washington Post revealed the following: "The most popular Republican in the country will not be speaking at the Republican National Convention. The party's number one asset, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, will not even be there -- and may not be in the United States, according to U.S. officials"; nor will Condi Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, evidently, though for different reasons I would guess. Rumsfeld and most of the neocons have simply disappeared from sight (at least until a second term). Imagine, the man who was the administration's top stand-up comic and general "stud muffin" back in the good old days of Mission Accomplished is now, perhaps by campaign fiat, MIA.

Powell is another story entirely. A few months back, he suddenly announced that he was pressing CIA director George Tenet (you remember him, don't you?) to explain how exactly he had gotten all that terrible Iraqi intelligence for his UN speech. It was, it seemed to me, a signal to the rest of the boys at State that they could leak at will (which, as far as I can tell, they proceeded to do). And now, he's going fishing during the Republican convention! "'As secretary of state, I am obliged not to participate in any way, shape, fashion, or form in parochial, political debates. I have to take no sides in the matter,' Powell told the Unity: Journalists of Color Convention on Thursday. Powell was a featured speaker at the 2000 convention and even campaigned with Bush."

Imagine that! Condi and he were the diversity stars at the last Bush convention. But Sean McCormick, a National Security Council spokesman, offered this explanation for the absence of his boss: "By tradition and custom, the national security adviser does not actively participate in campaign or political events." Remind me of the last time "tradition and custom" stood in the way of Karl Rove.

8. Afghanistan: Our 10,000 troops in Afghanistan having quietly been upped to 20,000, American casualties are on the rise in the land -- and war -- that time forgot. Two American soldiers and their Afghan translator were killed and another American wounded by an IED or roadside bomb (shades of Iraq) just this weekend. Meanwhile, in a grim sign of Aghan instability, after 24 years of continuous service through the worst of times, the esteemed NGO Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) has only now shut down its operations in the country after five of its workers were murdered. Our man in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is known as the "mayor of Kabul." Opium-growing has outrun all bounds, warlordism is rife, and a resurgent Taliban insurgency continues to grow in the southern parts of the country (though registration for voting in the upcoming elections is surprisingly high). Events there too could ambush the Bush administration any time in coming months.

9. Things to come category (part 1): Scandals, leaks, commissions, reports, investigations: Don't get me started. What if one or more administration official actually gets indicted by the Fitzgerald grand jury in the Plame case; or Hersh finally fully breaks that child torture, abuse, and sodomy story in Iraq (with soundtrack); or something really breaks on Halliburton and the Veep, or one of the investigatory groups in the Abu Ghraib scandal actually reaches up into the administration and nails someone; or… but the possibilities are endless and there's nothing like a wounded administration to bring them out.

10. Things to come category (part 2): What if Al-Qaeda doesn't strike in the U.S. before November 2? I know its rash of me to say, but this might prove the real October surprise: The administration doesn't find Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda doesn't carry out a domestic terror attack before or on election day. September 11th happened, as we now know in copious detail, because just about no one was looking while those al-Qaeda operatives and their "Saudi muscle" entered the U.S. fairly openly, trained for their flights, and bought their box-cutters. But with people even half-looking, half-efficiently, it's a far harder task to get that Saudi muscle in and organize an operation here. While I don't discount the dangers, I still consider such an attack unlikely soon.

So those of your intent on October or November surprises, at least remember that we're not the only ones they're likely to be aimed at. As the Bush administration limps toward November 2, guns drawn, wagons circled, ready for a fight, but unsure over which horizon, from behind which rocky knoll the next surprise may spring, keep in mind that reality's the great white shark and there's blood in the water.

Read dispatches by Tom Engelhardt throughout the week at Tomdispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.

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