The truth is, from Iran to Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan to Libya to Yemen, despite almost four years of Obama's ministrations and management, war and diplomacy, the Bush legacy is still threatening to blow the region sky-high. It could easily happen any time in the 43 days before November 6th. Which is why, from Sudan to Libya, the Obama administration is playing little Dutch boy, trying to plug every hole it can in the Middle Eastern dike and praying that any coming tsunami won't hit before the election.
A World at the Boiling Point
The question of the political season, then, has nothing to do with Mitt. It's this: Can the Greater Middle East be managed effectively enough for any potentially embarrassing thing to be swept under some rug until November 7th? And that's just one region on a planet aboil.
Similar questions could be asked of Israeli policy on Iran where Prime Minister Netanyahu has been, quite literally, on the warpath and in the Obama administration's face. He has been pushing for a green light for Israeli strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities or guaranteed red lines that would lead to such strikes. To an outside observer, it might almost seem that "Bibi"is on TV in the US often enough these days to be running for office. From late night presidential phone calls to a stream of messages to Tel Aviv, some offering promises, others warnings, the Obama administration has been putting enormous energy into ensuring that no Israeli strike on Iran will take place before election day (and on this they are likely to succeed). But keep in mind that, to placate Israel, the US has built up its forces in the Persian Gulf region to such an extent that any misstep anywhere could result in a blow-up that neither Washington nor Tehran wants.
When it comes to the disintegrating American position in Afghanistan, almost 11 years after victory was declared and the Bush administration decided to occupy the country rather than go home, the news is grim. The whole mission on which the withdrawal of US combat troops is ostensibly based—to train the Afghans to stand up and fight for their country—has essentially been put on hold. That's hardly surprising, since Washington's Afghan allies are now regularly standing up and, with the weapons and training US mentors have given them, blowing those mentors away.
Meanwhile, the actual enemy, the Taliban, supposedly surged into near nonexistence in its southern homeland, has just launched the most devastating attack on a military base of the war, resulting in at least $200 million in allied loses. (It's their first attack that might even faintly be compared to those the Vietnamese launched against American bases in the 1960s.) The question once again is: Can Washington hang on in Afghanistan until November 7th, even if it has to put every Afghan training mission and joint operation on hold and confine American troops to their bases? The great advantage the Obama administration holds in this regard is that the American public has generally been paying next to no attention to the Afghan War. This, nonetheless, is a situation in which an American mission has a possibility of imploding (and unexpected voices are finally being raised on the issue of early withdrawal). And we haven't even mentioned Afghanistan's unsettled and unsettling nuclear neighbor Pakistan.
Keep in mind that the increasingly disturbed regional system we're discussing just happens to be located in the energy heartlands of the planet and, in case you hadn't noticed, prices at the pump have been rising lately. The Saudis are, however, now promising to put extra oil into the global system, which just might providentially help the Obama administration by lowering gas prices before November.
Lest you think that Obama's October surprise fears lie mainly in the Middle East, however, remember that a world system is shuddering, too. There's the tottering Eurozone, in recession and threatening to shatter with unknown global financial consequences; and there's the Chinese economy, that motor for the planet this last decade, which seems to be slipping into recession (just as the powerhouse Indian and Brazilian economies do the same), amid growing signs of unrest and ugly nationalist upheavals. And don't even bother to bring up climate change, the state of the planet, or the fact that extreme droughts in the US and elsewhere this year are driving food prices up worldwide in a way that guarantees future popular unrest on a large scale. Any of the above could burst into prominence in the next 43 days, surprising the world and putting President Obama on the hot seat. And keep in mind that we're only talking about—to paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—the known knowns, and known unknowns. No one is even thinking about the unknown unknowns.
The liberal hit on Obama has been that the man won't fight for what he believes in. The next 43 days will put the lie to that. He's ready to fight fiercely for his job by doing his damnedest to tamp down any possible embarrassments, any potential October surprises—and he's enlisted the US government lock, stock, and State Department in that campaign. So if you want a little horse-race entertainment for the next six weeks, skip the Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia polls, don't worry about the results of the coming debates, or the court tests on restrictive new voting laws. After all, there's going to be no better show in town than the acrobatic contortions of the Obama crew as they work to keep global disaster off the menu until November 7th.
It should be a lesson in what a declining superpower can (or can't) still do: a shining tale of great power management and luck or a sobering parable of what is no longer within the grasp of such a power on this planet of ours.
In the meantime, it's Obama against the world and the horse-race question is: Will he make it to November 7th and a second term? Think of that as Obama's problem.
But there's another far less entertaining problem few are thinking about right now. Consider it our problem. The Obama people are understandably focused on the election. Being of a managerial frame of mind, their thoughts don't tend to run to the long-term anyhow. I doubt they have, at this point, put a second's consideration into what's likely to happen, if they manage to keep everything under wraps, 44 days from now—and beyond. It's not as if war with Iran, disaster in Afghanistan, chaos in the Middle East, a staggering Eurozone, a stumbling Chinese economy (in the midst of seaborne saber rattling), rising oil and food prices, climate change, and so much else won't be as threatening then. None of these are problems, however managed, that are going away anytime soon or are likely in the long run to prove particularly manageable from Washington.
The question for the rest of us is: What the hell happens next? It's one you better start thinking about because the Obama people, much as they want to rule the roost for four more years, don't have a clue.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses an "October surprise"world and the presidential election, click here or download it to your iPod here. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.