Preventing a foreign 'October surprise' while the president is quarantined

Preventing a foreign 'October surprise' while the president is quarantined
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The White House announcement that President TrumpDonald TrumpFacebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Sasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP Section 230 worked after the insurrection, but not before: How to regulate social media MORE and the first lady have tested positive for the coronavirus, and have mild symptoms of COVID-19, has compounded the long-standing sense of uncertainty among foreign capitals about America’s role on the world stage. 

The past 45 months have witnessed what friend and foe alike have perceived to be the Trump administration’s gradual American disengagement from many of its longtime foreign relationships. The election campaign, which invariably is an inward-looking affair, the chaotic first debate between President Trump and former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenMissouri woman seen with Pelosi sign charged in connection with Capitol riots Facebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Sasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP MORE that jarred numerous foreign leaders, and now the prospect of a potentially incapacitated president, for however short a time that may be, raise serious questions about America’s ability to respond to an international “October surprise.” That surprise could take one or more of a multitude of forms.

Turkey’s recent intervention in the simmering dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is merely a harbinger of a far more serious crisis that could erupt while the president is quarantined — and certainly if he ultimately becomes bedridden. At first blush, the most likely culprit would appear to be Russia. After all, given Trump’s fawning behavior toward Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinNavalny ally jailed in Moscow on extremism charges Biden selects Wendy Sherman for No. 2 State Department post Bill Burns knows Russia inside out — and that will be critical to Biden MORE, the Russian autocrat might conclude that the president’s potential illness and his concern about his diminishing electoral prospects will prevent him from responding in a forceful way to a Russian intervention in, say, Belarus.


On the other hand, Putin may well be cautious so as not to harm Trump’s chances of re-election. Any Russian aggressiveness that was not met with a swift American response would simply cast an even shinier light on Putin’s relationship with Trump, notably the president’s potential vulnerability to what many perceive are foreign creditors that could include Russian institutions. Raising such questions, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has done, would only strengthen Biden’s candidacy against what Democrats could allege is a “Manchurian candidate.” Putin simply has no interest in seeing Biden sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2021, and will do nothing to help him along.

Other American adversaries may not be so restrained. China’s Xi Jinping may conclude that now is the perfect time to increase Beijing’s harassment of Taiwan, perhaps by lobbing missiles at Taiwan’s Quemoy and Matsu islands, or by planting more facts in the South China Sea. Turkey may step up its harassment of rigs exploring for gas in the eastern Mediterranean, or send more proxy troops to support Azerbaijan, or further increase its involvement in the Libyan civil war.

Iran may encourage its Iraqi militias to intensify their attacks on American troops. Or Tehran may find other ways to avenge the drone attack in January that killed Revolutionary Guard Corps leader Qassem Soleimani. And North Korea’s Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnLike his predecessors, Biden faces a formidable task with North Korea North Korea displays ballistic missiles at parade Pelosi's risky blunder: Talking about Trump and nuclear war MORE may approve another missile test, or even the test of a nuclear weapon. 

When Ronald Reagan was shot in March 1981, tensions with the Soviet Union were exceedingly high. The Soviets were considering an attack on Poland, because of the increasing power of the Solidarity Movement; Washington also feared that Moscow might even launch a nuclear strike. After a short, chaotic interval in which Secretary of State Alexander Haig erroneously claimed that he was “in control,” the reins of government transitioned smoothly, though informally, to Vice President Bush, the Defense Department raised its nuclear alert level, and the Soviets did not act. 

The state of President Trump’s health appears to be nowhere near as precarious as Reagan’s was. And whatever one’s political views, we should him and Melania TrumpMelania TrumpMelania Trump bids farewell to Be Best in new video Garth Brooks, Joan Baez among this year's Kennedy Center honorees Melania Trump says she was 'disappointed and disheartened' watching Capitol riots MORE speedy recoveries. At the same time, however, Washington must ensure that there are no foreign “October surprises.” The White House must make it abundantly clear that the government is running smoothly, and that America will respond rapidly, forcefully and with overwhelming military force to any aggressive actions by any of its adversaries. Nothing less will do at this troubled time in America history. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.