Don't be surprised if Bush launches October Surprise

ROGER SIMON

July 26, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

Why do I get the funny feeling that the lower George Bush dips in the polls the greater the chance he will launch a military strike against Iraq?

Not that Saddam Hussein doesn't deserve to be attacked. But you've got to wonder about the timing.

This is a critical period for George Bush politically. Four years ago, Bush launched his attacks on Mike Dukakis early, months before the Republican convention.

And he did so because the late Lee Atwater, his campaign manager, told him that unless he did something dramatic, he would be buried by the Democrats.

"I was pleased when we came out of the Democratic convention 17 points down," Atwater told me. "Being 17 points down was a victory. Without the attacks we would have been 27 points down."

Some polls now have George Bush more than 27 points down. And he needs to do something. Like launch an airstrike or win a little war.

Not that a president would ever let politics affect his foreign policy.

Richard Nixon, after all, really, really needed to put U.S. forces on alert in 1973. He really believed the Soviet Union was going to send troops to the Middle East to aid Egypt and Syria in their invasion of Israel.

And Nixon was not motivated in the least by a desire to focus attention away from Watergate.

George Bush would never, of course, launch a military strike just because he could use a little boost in the polls.

But look at the advantages:

* A foreign crisis would make people forget, at least temporarily, about the lousy economy at home.

* By focusing attention on foreign affairs, Bush would emphasize Bill Clinton's greatest weakness.

* By using Tomahawk missiles instead of manned aircraft, Bush could minimize risk to U.S. personnel and get a "bloodless" victory. (Bloodless for us, that is. The Iraqis will probably shed several gallons.)

The possibility of just such a move is what the Democrats fear most and have been talking about for months.

Such a move is called an "October Surprise" because you assume your opponent will spring it the month before Election Day. (Bush is so far behind in the polls he might not be able to wait until October, however.)

Ironically, it was the Reagan-Bush ticket of 1980 that feared an October Surprise by Jimmy Carter. The Republicans feared that Carter would obtain the release of the U.S. hostages in Tehran and win the election.

And recently Bush and Ronald Reagan have been accused (without any real evidence, as far as I can tell) of actually bargaining with Iran to keep our hostages in captivity until after Election Day.

As it turned out, Election Day 1980 came and went without a release; Carter was defeated and the hostages were released hours after Reagan and Bush were inaugurated.

This year, Democrats fear an October Surprise by the Republicans. If not a crisis in Iraq, a crisis somewhere. (The overthrow of Castro and the institution of democracy in Cuba would be a nice little boost for the Republicans, for example.)

The Democrats want this election to be solely about domestic issues. In his hourlong speech to the Democratic convention, Bill Clinton didn't spend two minutes on foreign affairs.

George Bush desperately wants attention focused anyplace but home.

But he runs big risks in launching a pre-Election Day attack or enmeshing the United States in some foreign crisis:

* If it looks too nakedly political, as it did in the case of Nixon in 1973, it will hurt him more than it will help him.

* All military engagements are unpredictable, even the ones that look like sure things, and a bloody nose is exactly what Bush does not need right now.

* The Ross Perot campaign made many Americans question just what we were doing fighting in the gulf in the first place.

"We rescued the emir of Kuwait," Perot said. "Now, if I go knock on your door and say I'd like to borrow your son to go to the Middle East so that this dude with 70 wives, who has a minister for sex to find him a virgin every Thursday night, can have his throne back, you'd probably hit me in the mouth."

Running for president means taking risks, however. And the lousier the numbers look at home, the better a foreign adventure is going to look to George Bush.

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