07/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain and Charlie Black's October Surprise

John McCain's top advisor, the Washington lobbyist Charlie Black, told Fortune magazine recently that another terrorist attack in the United States would "be a big advantage" for McCain in the coming election. "Certainly, it would be a big advantage to him," he asserted. On another occasion Black talked up how the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan would have played well for Republicans.

Now isn't that special?

Here is the leading strategist for the Republican Party's nominee for president publicly surmising that if Al Qaeda or some other extremist group kills a bunch of innocent Americans his candidate will benefit politically. Black's callousness is just the latest example of the pathological cynicism of our toxic political discourse. If we had any decency Charlie Black would be run out of town on a rail. We should shame McCain into firing this specimen.

In any case, Charlie Black's prediction about how the American electorate would respond to another terrorist attack is stretched at best and total bullshit at worst. Any honest observer would take a look at George W. Bush's approval rating, the number of Americans who oppose the war in Iraq, and the backlash of the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London, and conclude just the opposite. But Charlie Black is not an honest observer. He displays the moral integrity we might expect from a man who lobbied on behalf of Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Jonas Savimbi. Hell, he might as well moonlight when he's not riding the "Straight Talk Express" to give a helping hand to Robert Mugabe.

But the really chilling thing about what Charlie Black told Fortune magazine is the mindset it reveals. We're in big trouble if the McCain people really believe this stuff. They might truly believe that any act of violence that reminds Americans of the "war on terror" will cut their way this November. They might even believe that a well-timed military strike against Iran will do the trick and help them win the election. If they really see political gold in another 9-11 what would stop them from being delighted if Bush attacked Iran if the timing were right, say in mid- October? "National Security" would be thrown onto the front burner of American politics and shift the debate over to McCain's putative turf.

There are historical precedents for this type of thinking. Although it is impossible to prove conclusively, there is evidence that in 1968 and in 1980 the Republican presidential campaigns engaged in their own freelance foreign policy to gain domestic political advantage. In 1968, the Richard Nixon campaign used its secret contacts with Anna Chennault, the widow of the famous "Flying Tigers" commander General Claire Chennault, to urge the South Vietnamese government to scuttle the Paris peace talks. The Nixon campaign feared that Vice-President Hubert Humphrey would get a boost if some kind of peace accord were reached before the election. President Lyndon Johnson knew about these contacts because he had bugged South Vietnam's embassy. Hence, the Republican Party might have blocked winding down the Vietnam war in order to win the election of 1968.

In 1980, the Ronald Reagan campaign allegedly used secret contacts to get word to the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Khomeini that the Islamic Republic would get a better deal if they held the 52 American hostages until after the election. The Reagan campaign feared the Iranians would release the hostages to President Jimmy Carter. Some of the "cut-outs" and arms dealers and other intermediaries who might have orchestrated the deal, such as the Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, later surfaced when Congress began investigating the Iran-Contra scandal. The motives behind the secret arms transfers to the Iranian regime during the Reagan Administration were never fully explained. Ultimately, George H. W. Bush pardoned over a dozen operatives who were facing criminal convictions for their Iran-Contra activities, and many of them ended up in high-level positions in George W. Bush's administration. (If McCain becomes president we can expect a similar bevy of pardons for Bush's cronies. That's why Bush desperately wants McCain in the White House to give him at least four years of cover-up that only a do-nothing Justice Department can provide.)

In 2008, an October Surprise might take the form of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. "National security" would be front and center, which Charlie Black believes helps McCain. It could also put Barack Obama on the defensive. Obama could find himself in the unenviable position of having to answer the war hawks. McCain will throw red meat to a voracious corporate media about how Bush's "prudent action" saved Israel or even Europe from future nuclear annihilation. And if Obama sheepishly concurred it would be a disaster for the Democrats. With his tough talk on Iran at a recent gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Obama has boxed himself in. In the event Bush attacks Iran we must press Obama to stand firm in opposition and show us that he doesn't "do cowering."

Every time I hear any American politician threaten Iran with military violence I ask myself: Don't these guys understand how fucking crazy an attack on Iran would be? My guess is that after the initial assault there'd be a short lull, maybe a week or two, and Bush and McCain will declare "Mission Accomplished" while the corporate media celebrates. And then all hell will break loose in the Middle East. Energy markets will go nuts. And the United States will find itself in a shooting war with a nation of 70 million people. War-weary Americans will have neither the money nor the will to pursue a war against yet another Islamic nation. The skies above Haifa will light up with Katyusha rockets. And we can kiss Iraq goodbye, not to mention the free flow of the world's oil supply. If Bush orders air strikes on Iran before he leaves office for whatever reason, political or otherwise, it will be a catastrophe.

McCain's key strategist believes a terrorist attack against Americans will help his campaign. They might also believe that some form of military action against Iran could be beneficial as well. That's a very dangerous scenario. But with Karl Rove and his Mayberry Machiavellians still creedling about in the shadows who knows how far these people are willing to go.