The attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that claimed four American lives last month thrust foreign policy into the forefront of the presidential race. Unrest in Libya is just one of the simmering conflicts worldwide that could erupt into a crisis between now and Nov. 6, and one of several foreign-policy issues the candidates will spar over in the coming debates.
Experts say the probability of any existing conflict dramatically escalating in the next few weeks is low. A game-changing event would more likely catch America unawares, such as another terrorist attack or an unexpected new threat—something like the discovery, ahead of the 1962 midterms, that the Soviet Union was discreetly arming Cuba. With that caveat, here are six scenarios that could impact U.S. policy abroad and the presidential race at home.
1) U.S. Strikes Libya, or Libya Investigations Reveal Damning Evidence
New information on mistakes that left the U.S. facility in Libya vulnerable may be Romney’s best opportunity to fault President Obama’s leadership overseas. But Romney needs to tread a fine line, and criticize the president without “making a mountain out of a molehill” for partisan gain, said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. Investigations into the incident are more likely to reflect public servants struggling to make sense of conflicting information with limited resources at their disposal than outright incompetence, experts say.
Another possibility is that the administration obtains actionable information on the perpetrators of the attack in Libya and takes action. A Seal Team Six-style takedown of the men who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens would elevate the president in voters’ eyes. But taking action without gaining the support of Libya’s fledgling government would damage America’s reputation in one of the few Islamic nations in the region that actually supports the United States.
2) NATO Takes Military Action Against Syria
Ever since a Syrian mortar attack killed Turkish civilians last week, Turkey—a NATO ally—and Syria have been exchanging fire over their shared border. Turkey’s response has heightened the risk of a wider regional conflict, and the direct involvement of a NATO member puts pressure on the alliance to make a collective military response. Both Romney and Obama have said that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad must go, although neither has called for going to war to get rid of him. A pledge by Obama to provide aid or weapons to Turkey wouldn’t conflict with the more hawkish tone Romney has taken on the Syrian conflict, giving Romney little space for criticizing the president.
3) Israel Strikes Iranian Nuclear Facilities
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations in September that Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities will reach a dangerous stage by the spring of 2013. A unilateral strike by Israel ahead of the U.S. election is unlikely, but both Obama and Romney face continuing questions on what circumstances would compel them to take military action against Tehran and whether they’ll let Netanyahu—literally—call the shots. A serious escalation of the standoff with Iran would probably help Obama, O’Hanlon said. “It would elevate his role as commander in chief” and make voters nervous about switching to an untested candidate in the midst of a crisis, O’Hanlon said.
4) Sanctions Force Iran to Negotiate
Thanks to Tehran’s poor handling of its economy and the strict sanctions the United States and other countries have imposed on the regime, Iran faces hyperinflation and domestic unrest. A precipitous 40 percent drop in the Iranian rial’s value against the dollar in late September sparked public protests. It’s hard to say whether economic woes will bring Iran to the negotiating table with a sincere proposal, but signs that the Obama administration-led sanctions are bearing fruit could help the president make the case for his approach.
5) Deepening Crisis in the Eurozone
Italy, Greece, and Spain remain in deep economic trouble, and the potential for calamity in the eurozone remains perhaps the greatest overseas threat to the U.S. economy. But Europe’s next crisis point is likely to fall after the U.S. election. Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras told a German business daily last week that Greece will need another bailout by the end of November. Samaras stressed that the Greek government has already imposed budget cuts that push the limit of what citizens will tolerate. During the debates, Obama and Romney may face questions about the crisis in Europe, and how they would respond to, say, a Greek departure from the common currency.
6) Either Obama or Romney Seriously Misspeaks
A major flub during a presidential debate is more likely than any of the above scenarios, said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman pointed to a 1976 debate, in which President Ford erroneously claimed, “There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe,” despite abundant evidence that the USSR was expanding its influence into the region. Ford’s insistence that Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia were totally autonomous helped sink his reelection hopes. “That was the October surprise in foreign policy in that campaign,” Cordesman said. “This is one area where Romney has a track record of misstatements. He has to be more careful than the president.”