GEORGETOWN, S.C. -- Taking a dozen grandchildren on vacation means that we buy cereal by the ton and milk in multiple gallons. I was in the cereal aisle, squinting at the list of ingredients on a brightly colored box of "high-fiber multigrain something," when a fellow shopper put the question to me: "So, Col. North, what's the 'October surprise' for this election?"
I almost said, "High-fructose corn syrup" -- the ingredient I had been instructed to avoid -- but settled instead for this: "Syria. Bashar Assad is likely to go down before we go to the polls, and that will change everything in the Middle East."
My response seemed to satisfy my interlocutor, but on reflection, it didn't suit me. That's because the first "October surprise" in a presidential campaign I recall affected me personally. It was 1968. Richard Nixon vs. Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Nixon had campaigned on a promise to end the war in Vietnam, and I was a newly minted U.S. Marine infantry second lieutenant with orders sending me to the widely unpopular fight shortly after the election.
On Oct. 31, just five days before Americans were to go to the polls, President Lyndon Johnson announced a halt to the "Rolling Thunder" air campaign against military targets in North Vietnam and a "breakthrough" in the "Paris peace talks" with the regime in Hanoi. Johnson's last-minute ploy to help his vice president's political fortunes had little effect on the election; Nixon won in a landslide.
Worse, Johnson's bombing halt had an adverse impact on U.S. and allied troops in Vietnam. By the time I took command of a rifle platoon along the so-called demilitarized zone later that month, North Vietnamese army troops were flooding across the border, and casualties escalated accordingly.
Since 1968, there have been numerous "October surprises." On Oct. 26, 1972, 12 days before the Nixon-McGovern presidential election, national security adviser Henry Kissinger, Nixon's chief negotiator with the North Vietnamese, announced that peace was "at hand" during a White House news conference. Nixon almost swept the ballot, carrying 49 of 50 states, losing only in Massachusetts.
Conspiracy theorists claim that Ronald Reagan prevented Jimmy Carter from reaping the benefits of an October surprise in 1980 by somehow persuading Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to delay freeing the 56 American hostages being held in Iran until after the U.S. elections. For those who believe such nonsense, the hostage release -- just minutes after President Reagan's inauguration -- "confirms" their suspicions.
Notably, all of those October surprises involved foreign intrigues, unexpected events in other countries and no small degree of jeopardy for the American people. Whether they actually altered the outcome of any of those elections is debatable. But given the state of world affairs and the abysmal state of our nation's security, this year's presidential campaign presents all manner of October surprise opportunities. Here are the top five:
--Syria. Counting on the United Nations to stop the carnage and prevent a bloody sectarian civil war has proved to be a devastating mistake. Syria is increasingly likely to become a catastrophically failed state in a matter of weeks. But neither the Romney campaign nor the Obama campaign appears to have a plan on how to deal with radical Islamists occupying Damascus and acquiring stockpiles of chemical weapons.
--Iran. Sanctions imposed by the U.N. have utterly failed to deter the ayatollahs from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. Tehran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz have driven up the worldwide price of crude oil and Americans' pain at the pump. The O-Team has dissuaded Israel from military action until after the presidential election -- but after Nov. 6, all bets are off. The Romney campaign has yet to explain how Mitt Romney would handle the Iranian threat if he were to become commander in chief.
--Latin America. Authoritarians Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua aren't the only problems south of the border. Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala are combating narco-terrorists, who threaten civil governance and rule of law with a tidal wave of murder and corruption. Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are in Venezuela and Bolivia, and the Chinese are now the biggest outside investors in Brazil. Both campaigns are mute about their policies for the region.
--China. Beijing now asserts sovereignty over the entire South China Sea -- and all fishing and mineral rights therein. Benigno Aquino III, president of the Philippines, has tried and failed to get the attention of the Obama administration, which claims to have a new "Pacific strategy." The media have yet to ask Romney how he would handle the issue.
--Afghanistan. It's no longer news to the so-called mainstream media, but even with the Obama drawdown, there are still more than 85,000 young Americans at war in the shadows of the Hindu Kush. The Afghan army is being handed greater security responsibilities daily. In neighboring nuclear-armed Pakistan, Taliban militants and members of the Haqqani network are trying to acquire man-portable surface-to-air missiles to bring down a planeload of U.S. troops heading home.
This election is supposed to be about the economy and jobs. That's no surprise. But if one or more of these foreign flash points catch fire, it would be nice to know that the commander in chief we hire in November has at least thought about how to put it out.