Terrorists’ October Surprise

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The eyes of the political world will be on New York today as President Bush delivers his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. But, with foreign policy occupying center stage in a presidential election for the first time since 1972, the outcome of the election may hinge less on what the president does in New York than on what our enemies do in Kabul and Baghdad.

As he no doubt will make clear tonight, Bush is running as the man who liberated Afghanistan and Iraq. But despite initial U.S. military victories and considerable progress toward democracy (Afghans will vote Oct. 9; Iraqis by Jan. 30), both countries face vicious insurgencies in which the ultimate outcome is unknowable.

From an American political perspective, the effect of these rebellions is clear: The more successes the rebels have between now and Nov. 2, the more they help John F. Kerry and hurt George W. Bush.

So it stands to reason that the guerrillas will want to launch an offensive, if they can, to influence the U.S. election. Not because Kerry is in any way sympathetic to the goals of the extremists, but simply because it would be quite a coup for the rebels to topple any president.

They must also reckon that there is little chance that Kerry would be as resolute as Bush in fighting them. Indeed, the Democratic candidate has talked of bringing the troops home from Iraq in his first term.


There is plenty of precedent for guerrillas trying to affect a U.S. election. In 1900, American troops were embroiled in another nasty counterinsurgency halfway around the world that was not going as well as planned. After the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, promised to pull out of the Philippines, the insurrectos launched a fall offensive in order to secure his election. They failed. Republican William McKinley was reelected, and the U.S. went on to pacify the islands.

In 1968, yet another group of anti-American guerrillas was more successful. The Tet offensive, though a military defeat, turned into a political triumph for the Viet Cong by driving Lyndon B. Johnson from office and convincing most Americans the war could not be won. Even though Richard Nixon was hardly a dove, he began the pullout of U.S. forces that ultimately led to the fall of South Vietnam.

More recently, in March, the Madrid train bombings helped to defeat the conservative party in Spain’s elections and bring to power socialists committed to pulling Spanish troops out of Iraq.

It is doubtful that American voters would react to an attack on U.S. soil as the Spaniards did to the Madrid bombings. Appeasement is not in America’s DNA. More likely the U.S. reaction to another 9/11 would be like that of the Israelis under similar circumstances: Whenever Israel is bombed, it responds by supporting the most hawkish candidate.

But what if the terrorist attacks occur not in the U.S. but in Afghanistan or, more likely, Iraq?

During the last year, Bush’s political fortunes have been tied closely to battlefield developments. His poll ratings soared last December, when Saddam Hussein was captured, and sank in April and May, when revelations about prisoner abuses combined with uprisings in Fallouja and Najaf to shake public confidence in the war effort.

Bush is finally starting to recover from those blows, though only at the cost of a softer line on the guerrillas.

He has ceded control of Fallouja to Sunni Islamist extremists who are turning it into a Taliban-style stronghold. And he has allowed Shiite firebrand Muqtada Sadr to walk away from another confrontation with U.S. troops, which will boost Sadr’s prestige. No doubt much of the impetus for backing down comes from Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who is fearful that a major confrontation would undermine his shaky authority. But Bush also wants to avoid preelection violence that would spook U.S. voters.

The jihadists, who watch Al Jazeera and CNN, are well aware of the president’s predicament, and odds are they will try to exploit it by driving up U.S. casualties before the election. Based on present trends, U.S. fatalities in Iraq will exceed 1,000 within a few weeks. Voters have shown they will tolerate such losses only in a winning cause. If an “October surprise” offensive shakes American confidence in victory, Bush could easily lose.

The odds of a U.S. military victory in Iraq would then decrease because, for all of Bush’s failures and miscalculations (and there have been many), he has more of a stake in the outcome of this war than his challenger does. Thus not only could the U.S. election turn on battlefield developments, but what ultimately happens on the battlefield could turn on the election.

Karl von Clausewitz was only half right when he wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Politics can also be the continuation of war by other means.