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Will there be an ‘October surprise’ in foreign policy?

Probably not, but if there is one, it’s bad news for President Trump

From left, Richard Grenell, the president’s adviser on Serbia and Kosovo; senior adviser Jared Kushner; and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien discuss a U.S.-led agreement on Sept. 4 between Serbia and Kosovo that attempts to normalize economic relations between the two countries. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In campaign parlance, the term “October surprise” means a news story that breaks late in an election cycle that could tip the balance of the election. Hands down, James B. Comey’s 2016 reopening of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails is the greatest October surprise of the modern presidency.

The origin of the term, however, comes from the title of a 1992 Gary Sick book alleging that in 1980 the Reagan campaign struck a backroom deal with Iran’s mullahs for them to stand firm with the Carter administration in return for subsequent covert arms shipments. This is mostly viewed as a conspiracy theory these days, but the idea of a foreign policy October surprise is not unprecedented. There is solid evidence that in 1968 the Nixon campaign urged the South Vietnamese government to scuttle any hopes of a last-minute peace deal ending the Vietnam War.

The point is that the original October surprises were grounded in foreign policy. Might President Trump attempt something similar in 2020?

Of course he would if he thought it would help him. This is someone who was tacitly encouraging the Russians to intervene in 2016 and probably hopes they do again this time around. According to John Bolton, Trump asked China for trade concessions to help with his reelection. Trump was impeached over accusations that he coerced Ukraine’s government into generating dirt on Joe Biden.

At this point, it would be more surprising if Trump did not try to pull off an October surprise to boost his chances.

The Trump administration’s challenges in pulling off a potent October surprise are daunting, however. One problem is that Trump’s opportunities for such a surprise are meager. We have already seen two efforts in the past month to produce foreign policy deliverables: the normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and the recent arrangement involving Serbia, Kosovo and Israel announced last week.

As Trump himself has acknowledged, Israel is a hot-button issue for evangelicals, so it makes sense that he would stress these deliverables now. The problem is there is not much there. The UAE deal, while a legitimate accomplishment, did not really move the needle much beyond Trump’s base.

The Serbia-Kosovo announcement is even flimsier, with one signatory not entirely clear on what was agreed. Richard Grenell can act like a strutting martinet all he wants, but it does not change the assessment of this agreement as not even worthy of being described as a small win. Writing in Politico, Majda Ruge notes that because this deal runs afoul of the European Union, it “deepened a transatlantic rift that will certainly be exploited by regional politicians. This is amateur-hour diplomacy, and the damage done dwarfs any gains.”

Slate’s Joshua Keating notes that even if one ignores the costs, “this is another example of Netanyahu doing Trump a favor, allowing him to claim a diplomatic win and burnish his pro-Israel credibility ahead of the election. But how many U.S. voters are there who see Kosovo-Israel relations as a front-burner issue?”

Keating raises an important problem for Trump: Are there any foreign policy issues that would boost his chances significantly? The hostage crisis and the Vietnam War were in the forefront of voters’ minds in 1980 and 1968. In 2020, the pandemic matters far more than any foreign policy issue.

There is also the degree to which polarization has poisoned the well for an October surprise. Even if Trump were to achieve, say, a North Korean peace deal, the cynicism about any announcement will be rather high. The White House’s attempt to fluff up the Serbia-Kosovo deal feeds this cynicism even more. Some observers fear he might launch a war to seek a rally-round-the-flag effect, but for reasons I elaborated a year ago, this seems unlikely.

Trump might want to pull off an October surprise, but the foreign policy larder is barren. He is more likely to care about a coronavirus vaccine announcement than a Middle East peace deal.

None of this means foreign policy will be unimportant to the general election campaign — but if it becomes important, that is probably beyond the control of Trump. Bad news happens all the time in world politics. A burst of terrorism, or the development of a vaccine by a non-Western country, could move the needle. Who knows what the latest Bob Woodward book or Atlantic story will reveal. The bad news for Trump is that it moves the needle against him.