October Surprise?

When an administration is in trouble right before an election, it sometimes resorts to an "October surprise" designed to build support. Certainly this administration has trouble on a number of fronts, including the Abramoff scandal, congressional corruption, and a Republican representative who sent sexually oriented instant messages to congressional pages. The mother of all issues, however, remains the war, which is not going well. The military is becoming more outspoken about its unhappiness with the situation; the intelligence services are saying that the conflict in Iraq is producing more terrorists, not fewer; and the budget and personnel costs are rising, causing disquiet even in Republican districts.

As an economist, I am often asked, especially by new acquaintances, "What is the market going to do?" "Is the economy going to continue to grow strongly?" My answer is usually to refer them to the local psychic, fortuneteller, or palm-reader. When I was a member of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan administration, I was frequently asked to forecast future economic trends. I was uncomfortable but asked our staff to stir the entrails of the computer and produce a "forecast" that we hoped would be sufficiently ambiguous that, when the future became the past, we had a fig leaf to stand behind. (Alan Greenspan was a master at this.) Therefore, it is with some trepidation that I put forward a conjecture about what George W. Bush may do in the next month. Let me add that I believe these possible initiatives by the president would be disastrous, but they are hardly implausible given his record.

This president makes a fetish of looking strong and aggressive. Thus, if he is to change course in Iraq, which looks increasingly like his only option, he will want to offset that change with a new and aggressive move. My scenario starts with James Baker, who with Lee Hamilton heads a bipartisan study group on Iraq, telling the president that he is in a hole and had better stop digging. Baker may suggest that the U.S. force the Iraqi government to step up to the plate by announcing that we will pull our troops out by a date certain. The president will make this recommendation public. He will promise that most of our soldiers will be gone by the end of 2007 or, at the latest, by mid-2008. For Republicans, this has the advantage of removing the issue before the next presidential election and, in all probability, from this midterm poll.

To maintain his macho image, however, the president will also announce that the U.S. will bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities if that country refuses to stop enriching uranium within a week. He is currently laying the political groundwork for this by asserting that the Democrats would be unwilling to militarily preempt an aggressive state. The Democrats, he says, will "wait until we’re attacked again," implying that he will strike before we are assailed. Bombing Iran will be couched in terms of eliminating that country’s ability to attack us with nuclear weapons.

Employing force against Iran will please the pro-Israel lobby and the hawks in and out of the administration. Vice President Dick Cheney has been urging an attack on Iran and will be outspoken in his support. George Bush has found being a wartime president rewarding, especially at the start of a fight. Right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, the violence has gone on too long and our troops are bogged down. It is quite possible that we will lose these conflicts, so he might think it good politics to start a new war with Iran, a country on his "axis of evil." Bush may believe that it will give him a lift for the next few months.

Unfortunately, this tactic might work. People will see a "strong" president going after the "evil guys." Initially the public, which sees most wars – at least until they get bloody – as the World Series or the Super Bowl, only larger, may rally around the flag. In this case, there will be no messy street fighting or IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The bombing will likely produce few if any casualties. The public will support the Republicans, and the president will get a servile Congress again. He will, of course, lose the support of Europeans, not just the "old" ones, but the "new" ones as well. I doubt seriously that Tony Blair will be able to support him in such a bombing campaign, but then the president has shown that he doesn’t care what other nations think.

As long as he holds off on using nuclear weapons during the bombing, Bush can threaten Iran that, if it retaliates, either by sending missiles against Israel or by trying to close the Strait of Hormuz, the U.S. will respond with nuclear weapons. If everyone hates us already, what do we have to lose by lobbing a few nuclear missiles? Thus, he might be able to get away with the bombing without any serious repercussions, at least in the short run.

Although this is a scary scenario, it seems all too possible. I certainly hope that my forecasts here are no better than my predictions concerning the economy. Perhaps Bush will simply stay in Iraq and continue to threaten Iran; but if the threats are to be meaningful, he will feel forced to act. If so, why not now, when he needs the jolt to get the Congress he wants? Should Bush pull something like this, let us hope that the voters will see through his scheme.