President Barack Obama
Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
Election countdown: Whatever could go wrong?
- Article by: URI FRIEDMAN
- Foreign Policy
- May 28, 2012 - 9:58 PM
Prevailing wisdom is that the economy, not foreign policy, will determine who becomes the next president of the United States. When voters were asked in a Washington Post-ABC News poll this week what the most important issue was for them in choosing a president, 52 percent said jobs and the economy.
Foreign-policy issues such as terrorism and the war in Afghanistan each mustered a measly 1 percent. But every politician lives in fear of that 3 a.m. phone call that can upend the best-laid campaign plans.
Here are five global events that could send the U.S. election careening along a very different path:
SHOWDOWN WITH IRAN
If diplomatic efforts and sanctions fail to wring meaningful concessions from Iran, there's an outside chance that Israel -- or, in a less likely scenario, the United States and its allies -- will conclude that military action is the only way to halt Iran's nuclear advances (some have even suggested that it's in Israel's interests to strike Iran's nuclear facilities in the run-up to the U.S. election).
Americans see Iran as the country that represents the greatest threat to the United States, and a recent Pew poll found that 63 percent of Americans are willing to go to war if necessary to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons -- a measure that Romney has promoted more aggressively than Obama has, although both candidates have said that all options are on the table.
Some market analysts estimate that a military conflict with Iran could push gas prices in the United States to between $5 and $6 per gallon, jeopardizing the country's fitful economic recovery. The last five times gas prices have spiked during a U.S. presidential campaign, the incumbent party has lost the election.
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Fear is widespread that Greece will default on its debt and exit the eurozone, which could spread contagion in southern Europe and plunge the global economy back into recession. But there's a debate about the extent to which the European debt crisis will influence the U.S. election
If a Greek exit precipitates the collapse of the eurozone, Brookings Institution scholar William Galston argues in the New Republic, it will be disastrous for Europe and the United States. But he adds that U.S. GDP growth would probably slow and the unemployment rate would likely stagnate even if the European monetary union remains intact after Greece's departure.
"These developments would make it harder for Obama to argue that we're heading in the right direction, and ... I suspect that economic growth at these depressed levels would mean victory for Mitt Romney," he writes.
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China's slowing economic growth -- which dropped to a nearly three-year low of 8.1 percent in the first quarter of 2012 -- has prompted Chinese leaders to pledge new measures to stimulate domestic demand and commentators to warn of an impending economic crisis in the country.
This week, the World Bank cautioned that a recession in Europe could take a heavy toll on the Middle Kingdom, which in turn could stifle growth in other East Asian nations.
But when Beijing sneezes, does Washington catch a cold? China's sluggish growth poses a "substantial risk" to the United States as the general election approaches, Campbell Harvey, a professor at Duke University, told CNN this week. "You don't need a lot to knock us out of recovery."
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The United States has not suffered a major terrorist attack during Obama's presidency, and the administration has foiled several plots. The president has taken out several high-profile terrorists through drone strikes and has touted the killing of Osama bin Laden as one of his signal achievements -- much to Romney's chagrin.
But an attack on American soil could instantly shatter the armor Obama has built up on national security, reverse the public's declining concern about terrorism, and transform the campaign. And such a scenario isn't out of the question. Two of the most high-profile attacks in recent years -- the Christmas Day bombing attempt in 2009 and the Times Square bombing attempt in 2010 -- were thwarted by luck as much as anything else.
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THE UNKNOWN UNKNOWN
There's a reason we call the "October surprise" what we do. Sometimes (though admittedly not often) we simply don't know what will tilt the results of a race until Election Day is upon us. The term "October surprise" dates to 1972, when National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger declared less than two weeks before the presidential election that peace was "at hand" in Vietnam -- comments that were credited with helping President Richard Nixon resoundingly defeat George McGovern (though in truth Nixon didn't need much help).
In other words, we have a ways to go until November, and anything from security in Afghanistan to violence in Syria to elections in Venezuela (ominously scheduled for October) could emerge as a game-changer.
When the 2008 presidential election got underway, everyone assumed that foreign policy -- specifically the war in Iraq -- would be the dominant issue. But then the global financial crisis hit. It's too early to rule out the reverse happening in 2012.
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