There are two sides of the coin here. On the one side, military action tends to shift attention over to the man in the White House and gives its occupant a bump in the polls. Even Carter got one, which means that Obama might too.
But the other side of the coin is that the American people really don’t want another war and one of Obama’s strategies in the third debate was to keep suggesting that Romney would start a war. While Obama is never bound by anything that comes out of his mouth, that was a strategy based on polls which showed that an actual war is highly unpopular, especially with independent voters.
Anyone expecting a last minute Iran strike should let that one go. It’s not impossible. Nothing is. Including bombing the North Pole, but it isn’t likely to happen.
The same thing goes for an intervention in Syria, which would have the same problem. Intervening in Syria would not be quick or easy. It wouldn’t be an October Surprise, more of an October Sludge spilling into December and taking up the next six months. And it would be about as popular as Libya, which wasn’t very popular at all.
So that leaves the small stuff. No doubt the drone strikes will keep on hitting terrorists, but without a truly big name, there’s no real point. And the only really big name in terrorism is dead.
A Wag the Dog style military strike would need to be fairly short and very low risk. Most importantly it would have to be the kind of issue that Americans would get behind, or it might backfire. And that just leaves Benghazi.
Going after some of the Islamists responsible for the Benghazi consulate attack would be popular and so long as it was done with drones and a few air strikes, and quickly over would boost Obama’s numbers.
What would such an October Surprise look like? It would be a heavily hyped week of air strikes, mostly useless, but it would have the appearance of an extensive operation, complete with film of aircraft taking off from aircraft carriers. Like Wag the Dog, it would have the appearance of a war without actually being one. Like Clinton’s own air strikes, many of the targets would be a few tents or a patch of desert, but it would make for a spectacular show for television viewers.
Obama would break into prime time programming to deliver a speech to the nation. Cue footage of nighttime takeoffs from aircraft carrier decks and video of bombs falling to their target. All the usual trimmings that Clinton’s people, who are now running things, used to good effect. There will even be a kill list made public to create suspense for the takedowns.
But the question is will it happen? The options have probably been on the table since September 11, 2012. The assets are there. It would be doable, but…
1. Libya has denied permission for even armed drones. Getting this done would either mean violating Libyan airspace, with the resulting outcry from the left and the UN, or bribing the Libyan government. The latter is likelier, especially if by prior arrangement the targets are all abandoned factories and houses. But it’s an open question of whether such cooperation can be obtained.
2. Obama doesn’t like the idea. O is a hypocrite, but he still rationalizes his political positions. He rationalized going after Bin Laden by believing that he could use Bin Laden’s capture to force Americans to accept civilian trials and give up the War on Terror. There’s no such plum here except his own ability to implement progressive policies once elected.
3. It would be nakedly transparent. The American people aren’t stupid and there’s very little time left for carrying this out. The dominant response, even in the media, would be cynical. Far more people would be saying, “Wag the Dog” than would be cheering on the operation.
4. It might backfire. There’s a reason that Obama took the war tack with Romney. The polls show that people don’t want a war. A week’s worth of bombings wouldn’t alienate voters, but it would give them a reason to keep backing away to the candidate who is focused on the economy.
We saw in the foreign policy debate that both candidates kept pivoting toward the economy. A fake war now would be more likely to wipe out what’s left of Obama’s chances, even if the public supported it 100 percent. Obama is losing because of a perception that he has neglected the economy. A week’s worth of air strikes would boost his rating, but also end his career.
But that doesn’t mean he might not go for it anyway if the polls are so bad that he has nothing left to lose.