An "October surprise" to help Obama?

Gabriel Schoenfeld suggests terrorists may try to help Barack Obama's electoral prospects this fall, but history doesn't support his take.

Published May 12, 2008 4:51PM (EDT)

Writing in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior editor at the seminal neoconservative journal Commentary, speculated about the possibility of an "October surprise" engineered by a rogue nation, terrorists or Iraqi insurgents with the intent of helping Barack Obama win the presidency. Recent history shows, however, that if there is such a surprise, it might in fact be aimed at hurting Obama's chances.

After naming Hamas, Iran and North Korea, Schoenfeld wrote, "One or more of these players might do everything in its power to hurt Mr. McCain and help Mr. Obama. Dramatic action keyed to our internal politics is, after all, already a page in some of our adversaries' playbooks."

Schoenfeld also reached back to the 2004 presidential election, writing, "In 2004, Osama bin Laden's television appearance only a weekend before the presidential election may have been a naked attempt to influence the outcome by reminding voters that he was still at large and President Bush's policy had failed."

Conspicuously absent from Schoenfeld's argument that these various groups would want Obama as president and would take some action to help him, and from his discussion of the 2004 bin Laden videotape, is one very important point: The CIA believed that bin Laden wanted the tape to help President Bush, not his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry. In his book about the war on terror, "The One Percent Doctrine," journalist Ron Suskind reports on a meeting at which high-level CIA officials discussed bin Laden's message:

What [the CIA had] learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons -- and those reasons are debated with often startling depth within the organization's leadership. [The CIA's] assessments, at day's end, are a distillate of the kind of secret, internal conversations that the American public ... [was] not sanctioned to hear: strategic analysis.

Today's conclusion: bin Laden's message was clearly designed to assist the President's reelection ...

John McLaughlin [then acting director of the CIA] opened the issue with the consensus view: "Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the president."

Around the table, there were nods ... There was some speculative talk of why -- knowing that bin Laden acted out a strategic rationale -- he would have done this, just as there was, [Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, formerly the the CIA's operational chief for WMD and terrorism,] recalled, of why the Soviets liked certain American leaders, such as Nixon: because they were consistent and predictable ...

But an ocean of hard truths before them -- such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected -- remained untouched.

"It was sad," Mowatt-Larssen remembered. "We just sat there. We were dispirited. We had nothing left at that point."

Schoenfeld also makes one rather funny argument -- funny in both the odd sense and the "ha-ha" sense. He writes:

A terrorist kingpin like Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas, will not sleep particularly peacefully with a president in the White House like John McCain who describes himself, as he did last week, as Hamas's "worst nightmare."

Really? McCain's blustery boasting is by itself enough to have Hamas worried? That seems too credulous, perhaps too infatuated with manly posturing, doesn't it? That's especially true considering something I've written about before -- President Bush's policy regarding Hamas, which McCain would most likely emulate, has actually been a dream for the group. In a recent article for Vanity Fair, David Rose reported:

According to [Muhammad Dahlan, Mahmoud Abbas' former national security advisor], it was Bush who had pushed legislative elections in the Palestinian territories in January 2006, despite warnings that Fatah was not ready. After Hamas -- whose 1988 charter committed it to the goal of driving Israel into the sea -- won control of the parliament, Bush made another, deadlier miscalculation.

Vanity Fair has obtained confidential documents, since corroborated by sources in the U.S. and Palestine, which lay bare a covert initiative, approved by Bush and implemented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, to provoke a Palestinian civil war. The plan was for forces led by Dahlan, and armed with new weapons supplied at America's behest, to give Fatah the muscle it needed to remove the democratically elected Hamas-led government from power. (The State Department declined to comment.) But the secret plan backfired, resulting in a further setback for American foreign policy under Bush. Instead of driving its enemies out of power, the U.S.-backed Fatah fighters inadvertently provoked Hamas to seize total control of Gaza.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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