Where The Wild Cards Are
The potentially transforming events in the 2008 campaign are matters of war and peace. Both may be in play between now and November, in ways that add extra volatility to the presidential race.
Let's start with war: The United States is already fighting two of them, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging from recent statements by administration officials, there is also a small, but growing, chance of conflict with Iran.
The administration is signaling the Iranians that they need to stop supplying and training Shiite militias in Iraq -- or run the risk of U.S. retaliation. The Maliki government in Baghdad, worried about the danger of escalation, is passing this message to Tehran, but so far the only consequence has been that the Iranians have broken off talks in Baghdad that were aimed at stabilizing the situation.
Saber rattling from the Bush White House may seem almost routine, but pay attention to the comment last week by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Iran is not going away. We need to be strong and really in the deterrent mode, to not be very predictable."
The risk of a U.S.-Iranian confrontation is growing in part because Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the Middle East are so eager for it. "Behind closed doors, we are praying that the Iranians will make a mistake so that you will have a reason to attack," one Saudi told me this week. Another prominent Arab official said he hopes the United States will strike Iranian training camps just over the border from Iraq.
How would a U.S.-Iran confrontation play out in the campaign? Obviously, that depends on how you read the American political mood. Usually, we assume that the nation rallies around the party of war, but that's less certain in this case. America is war-weary, and it mistrusts President Bush. So a military skirmish with Iran might backfire, adding to public dissent -- much as happened with the Nixon administration's attack on Viet Cong sanctuaries in Cambodia in 1970.
Adding to the combustible mix is Hillary Clinton's hawkish position on Iran, which has support from the center-right of the party even if she drops out. Her rhetorical threat to "totally obliterate" Iran if it launched a nuclear attack against Israel was sharper than anything that has come out of the Bush White House. The anti-Iran stance from centrist Democrats blunts John McCain's appeal as the tough-guy candidate. But it complicates the Democrats' argument for withdrawing U.S. troops rapidly from Iraq, since the main beneficiary of such a move would be Tehran.
The other wild card in the campaign is, happily, the possibility that Middle East peace negotiations might actually bear fruit. Bush administration officials continue to insist they have a chance of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement while Bush is in office. By this, they mean an agreement on paper -- one that would codify the outlines of the two-state solution that was negotiated but never concluded during the last days of the Clinton administration. This "shelf agreement" could be endorsed by the U.N. Security Council and provide a baseline for continuing talks next year about implementation.
A peace agreement -- even one that has no practical effect on the ground -- would be a feather in President Bush's cap. But its political benefits for the GOP would be limited. Even a full-fledged peace treaty between Egypt and Israel failed to save Jimmy Carter from defeat at the polls in 1980. In that election, as perhaps this year, the Iranians played the role of spoilers.
Finally, there are noises offstage from Israel and Syria about a possible peace treaty. This would be the ultimate pragmatic bargain -- Israel likes the stability that Bashar al-Assad's military regime provides in Damascus, and it regards Syrian hegemony in Lebanon as an acceptable and perhaps desirable price. An important feature of the dickering between Syria and Israel is that they have used Turkey as the key intermediary. If Turkey can bridge these two, with help from the United States, it would reattach Ankara firmly to the Arab world for the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.
The 2008 campaign has been so mesmerizing that it's easy to forget what's going on out in the real world that could disrupt, once again, the certitudes of the pollsters and strategists. The campaign in recent weeks has focused on pocketbook issues because of worries about a deep recession. But as these economic anxieties fade a bit, we are likely to return to the ground zero of the Middle East, and to the themes of war and peace that will be interwoven through the remainder of this campaign.