[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
AMERICAN ELECTION OBSERVERS often talk about the October surprise, the last-minute revelation that can shift the outcome. In international affairs, there’s a potentially more dangerous phenomenon: the November blitz.
When American presidential elections produce a transition — a sure thing when the incumbent isn’t running, like this year — the 10 weeks between Election Day and the inauguration can produce a jumble of last-minute power grabs and other maneuvers by governments overseas.
Sensing danger ahead under a new president, or gambling that America will be busy with its leadership transition, foreign powers often make bold, risky, or destabilizing moves during the lame-duck period of an outgoing president. Sometimes the architects think they’ll never get a better deal. In other cases, they expect to irritate the United States but figure they’ll escape with minimal backlash from a president on the way out.
The most recent example came in 2008 after Barack Obama’s election, when Israel unleashed a war in Gaza. The operation prompted international opprobrium for the widespread strikes against civilian targets. Israel launched the war on Dec. 28, 2008, and ended it just two days before Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009. Officials gambled that George W. Bush, the pro-Israel president they knew, would be angry but not enough to withhold weapons deliveries or otherwise punish Israel — and they were right. It was a classic November blitz, even though it took place in December and January.
Reaching further back to the closing months of 2000, President Bill Clinton pulled every string he could conjure to force Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to reach a historic peace deal. With just days left in his presidency the effort unraveled.
Today, the world feels even more unsettled than it did eight years ago. Predictability is the grease that keeps the international system humming, and it’s in short supply. Nowadays figures such as Vladimir Putin — not to mention the GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump — have injected unprecedented unpredictability into international rhetoric. Oil prices and financial markets haven’t behaved consistently, and hot wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Libya have to some degree drawn in almost every major military power in the world. Far-right movements in Europe and the United States have opened up new, dark possibilities: The age of open borders could be drawing to a close, while the supposedly stabilizing umbrella of international agreements and institutions is being strained more than at any point since the end of World War II.
That volatile mix opens the door to gambles. What kind of lame-duck period meltdowns and provocations can the United States expect after Nov. 8, and can it do anything to minimize the risk?
THE TOP FOREIGN contender for machinations in the lame-duck period is the same culprit already blamed for an October surprise: Russia. Just as Putin’s security state is alleged to be behind hacking and other shady moves to help Trump, Russia’s preferred candidate, win the US election, it is highly likely to move in the interregnum to shore up its position.
“Americans voting for a president on Nov. 8 must realize that they are voting for peace on planet Earth if they vote for Trump,” Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky said, according to Reuters. “But if they vote for Hillary, it’s war. It will be a short movie. There will be Hiroshimas and Nagasakis everywhere.”
Zhirinovsky is a bombastic bit player in Russia, but his aggressive rhetoric comes as part of a Kremlin campaign to reassert Russian power and roll back American gains since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Putin has long been irked that NATO, America’s original anti-Soviet alliance, absorbed most of the former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe and expanded right up to Russia’s borders in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. In October, he issued a list of specific demands to the United States, including the end of all anti-Russia sanctions, the rollback of NATO, and compensation to Russia.
While these demands might seem crazy from an American perspective, they form a negotiating position. If Putin can create a rash of new facts on the ground in a hurry, before Obama’s successor gets installed in the White House, then his agenda will have to be taken more seriously.
The Russian leader could try to put an incoming US president on the defensive by provoking a crisis with the Baltic republics. (Trump has made comments during the campaign to suggest if he were president, he might not honor NATO’s commitment to defend the vulnerable Baltics from Russia.)
Putin could also scrap more of the US-Russia nuclear agreements, in order to shift the conflict with Washington away from conventional wars, like the fights in Syria and Ukraine, and onto the much scarier plane of nuclear war. Since 1991, we’ve grown inured to the risk of Armageddon, a fear that Putin seems eager to revive.
A really shocking November maneuver could take surprising forms. Putin could threaten to deploy nuclear-capable weapons to Syria or Cuba. He could aggressively deploy his navy and air force in close proximity to NATO. He could send flash-mob invaders into the Baltics and annex territory, like he did in Crimea.
DISRUPTORS WITH A long-term agenda have the biggest incentive to strike during the lame-duck period, since they are trying not only to provoke a reaction but set the stage for a later negotiation. That’s why the lame-duck period is not such fertile ground for nihilist terrorist groups whose main goal is to goad the US leadership into overreaction; they are more likely to want to target a early-term president.
In the Middle East, some of the usual culprits are also unlikely to act. Israel has had a testy relationship with Obama. But it considers Clinton a stalwart supporter of Israeli government policy, and Trump, despite some boisterous comments during the campaign, has gone out of his way to reassure boosters of the Israeli government. Unlike in 2008, Israeli officials seem confident that they’ll get a more sympathetic ear in the next White House, so they’ll have little interest in major lame-duck period shifts with Gaza or along the borders with Lebanon and Syria.
On the contrary, Saudi Arabia has every reason to accelerate its ill-conceived war in Yemen, which the United States unwisely backed as a concession to a Saudi monarchy that felt sidelined by Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. As the war crimes have piled up, Obama at last in October ordered a long-overdue review over American support for the Yemen war. Reading the tea leaves, Saudi Arabia’s leaders can expect the United States to curtail or even cut off military support in the near future. Certainly, the next US president will have a free hand to pull out of the ugly Yemen war.
This is precisely the most combustible recipe for a desperate November blitz. Knowing that it can’t win the war outright and install its preferred leader in Yemen, Saudi Arabia might seek to hobble its Yemen opponents as much as possible with more of the same sort of widespread bombing with which it has targeted Yemen’s political class and infrastructure.
Not all lame-duck foreign policy flare-ups occur in the Middle East. The main issues confronting the United States remain the same: countering great power threats, containing nuclear proliferation, and battling terrorism, most prominently from the Islamic State.
Beyond the already boiling Middle East, there are other pressure points ripe for November surprises. In the South China Sea and its disputed islands, for instance, China has been pushing hard. It could make a further show of force, further entrenching its claims over what promises to be a focal point of dangerous great-power competition on the next president’s watch.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the man who proudly compared himself to Hitler on account of his campaign to capture or kill millions of drug addicts, has said Obama can “go to hell” while threatening to “break up” with America. America’s Asia strategy relies on a unified, concerted counterweight to China — a carefully crafted entente that Duterte seems gleefully willing to shatter. A break in the US-Philippines relationship could drastically shift the balance of power in Asia. Duterte seems both reckless and shrewd enough to use a realistic breakup threat as leverage to force America to back down on its threats to punish him for his endemic abuse of human rights.
The lame-duck period invites malingerers, spoilers, rogues, and all manner of American rivals to fire shots across Washington’s bow. North Korea already periodically rattles the world with rocket launches and nuclear tests. It might feel the need to do so again now as a warning to Clinton or Trump.
WHAT CAN OBAMA do to get out ahead of these kind of prospective lame-duck period spoiler moves? Are there spoiler moves of his own that Obama could make, as a gift to America — or his successor?
In foreign affairs, Obama has been systematic and cerebral; he has tried to follow the policies that he laid out in his own speeches. He has also been very open with his frustrations about annoying allies that pursue their own ends and flout their American patron.
Free to pursue his conscience without risk in any future election campaign, Obama could make unilateral foreign policy moves that could catch America’s rivals off guard. For an opportunist, the lame-duck period cuts both ways.
For starters, Obama could sow heartache among whiny allies, cutting or freezing military aid that foreign governments would then have to earn back, through better cooperation, from Obama’s successor. The list is long and insalubrious, but Obama could take some of the political blowback for himself and turn the tables on entitled clients who act like aid and weapons from America are their birthright.
Saudi Arabia relies exclusively on America’s defense umbrella for its security. Any threat that it could seek weapons elsewhere, such as Russia or China, rings hollow, since its entire defense establishment is built on American hardware, resupply, and trainers. Washington could freeze arms sales, pending a lengthy review of rights violations in the Yemen war — pointedly reminding its brittle Gulf ally that Washington also holds cards in the relationship.
Other relationships ready for “right-sizing” include Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey. In each case, Obama could slow down or stall existing aid, on entirely procedural grounds, to remind each one of these sometimes quarrelsome client states that they need to earn their special relationships with the United States, rather than straining them.
This year’s ugly presidential campaign has stoked racism and xenophobia. As a result, the United States, already a malingerer when it comes to admitting refugees, has lagged worldwide. Obama raised America’s tiny quota, but it remains at symbolic levels, with few slots reserved for people displaced from key trouble spots like Syria and Iraq.
Obama could rip a page out of the playbook of his Canadian colleague Justin Trudeau, who promised to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees in his first two months in office. (It took him four months, but he accomplished the target in February.) Surely if Canada can manage such a feat, so can the far larger United States.
An Obama November surprise to admit refugees would be a generous about-face. It would shift politics away from fear of terrorism to embrace America’s melting-pot identity — and create a fait accompli for his successor. Even if Clinton wins, she would be unlikely to take such an initiative in the face of political challenges from the anti-immigrant right, which Trump exemplifies.
Obama could also erase a blot on America’s reputation by closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, where 61 detainees — many of them held indefinitely and without charge — languish in legal limbo. America’s island prison is the most egregious symbol of the post-9/11 overreaction, which enshrined the notion of an endless war against terrorism, a tactic which will never disappear from the face of the earth. Obama promised in his 2008 campaign to close Guantanamo, but his determination was foiled by the complicated politics and logistics. However, he has the executive authority to close this loophole in America’s constitutional rule of law. Come Nov. 8, he’ll have the political freedom to do it.
Washington can even use the lame-duck leverage in sectors removed from the usual business of war and peace, like the airline industry. The United States is in trade talks right now with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar over a persistent source of discord: the subsidies that give those countries’ airlines a competitive edge over US airlines. There’s now reportedly a move afoot by the Gulf monarchies to take whatever deal they can get now from Obama’s State Department. After a campaign that raised protectionist ire and anger about unfair advantages to foreign competitors, there would be increased scrutiny on those subsidies.
Powerful governments with nothing to lose can be dangerous. And as we’ve painfully learned over the last year, uncertainty in international relations can breed violent and destabilizing competition for power.
The 10 weeks that follow American Election Day — the single most important date on the calendars of schemers and plotters worldwide — offer peril. For a departing American president who’s looking toward the history books, they also offer opportunity.