Let’s be real: The differences between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney don’t extend to national security. The campaign revealed that both candidates seeking the presidency on Tuesday will launch drone strikes and commando raids against terrorists, wind down the Afghanistan war, and pressure Iran. Probably the only thing that can unmoor U.S. foreign policy tonight is not knowing who won the election, which will mean chaos, doom, cats and dogs living together, and other mass hysteria.
While we’re not trying to play Nate Silver, there are a number of scenarios that make the resolution of the election uncertain. Maybe the margin of victory in critical states is thin enough to trigger a recount; maybe there are charges of voter suppression or fraud that delay an outcome; maybe confusing ballot designs trigger Bush vs. Gore 2.0; maybe something unforeseen happens. That has implications for national security: Remember how there was this massive terrorist attack 10 months after the Florida recount? The recount didn’t by any means lead inexorably to 9/11, but in the interests of caution, here’s a nightmare scenario for Wednesday-morning confusion.
First up: the scheduled automatic reductions to the Pentagon budget known as sequestration. During the lame-duck session of Congress that’ll begin after the election, the outgoing legislators have to find some budget compromise that averts nearly every non-personnel aspect of the military’s budget getting cut by 9.4 percent for the next decade. That compromise has been so elusive for so long that legislators like Rep. Buck McKeon (R-California), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, just want Congress to vote to delay the cuts in order to buy more time. But even agreeing on a punt is difficult, because sequester is supposed to be the mechanism that forces Democrats to cut social spending and forces Republicans to raise taxes, making the politics of sequestration dicey. Now imagine how much more difficult it will be for Congress to avert sequestration when half the country believes the other half stole an election.
That’s just in the United States. The rest of the world could easily get restive as the U.S. stumbles to declare its next president. Iran could take advantage of the confusion by enriching more uranium on the hunch that the U.S. will be too preoccupied to stop it. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu signaled in September that he’d wait until at least next spring to consider attacking Iran; maybe that calculation shifts if Netanyahu — who on Tuesday said he was comfortable with striking Iran unilaterally — doesn’t know who in the White House might back him up. Afghanistan is going through not only the traditional post-summer lull in fighting but a forthcoming leadership change in U.S. generalship that might seem to the Taliban like an opportunity.
It’s not just what foreigners do. The absence of direction can wreak havoc with the machinery of security, from the planning to the acquisition and research that happens every day at the Pentagon. That’s among the reasons why the constellation of contractors around the military dislike the occasional prospect of a government shutdown. Now combine that with the anxiety over sequestration, and you’ve got a bureaucracy overwhelmed by existing challenges and unable to implement new initiatives. And that’s just at the Pentagon. Diplomacy becomes a matter of treading geopolitical water in the absence of guidance. Sure, the deputy assistant secretary of whatever isn’t going to grab the nuclear football, but still: not helpful.
Yes, the world will keep spinning until the election is resolved. But the longer it takes, the greater the potential for the problems that president will face to metastasize and compound. The 9/11 Commission didn’t connect the 2000 recount to the 9/11 attacks, but the recount couldn’t have helped U.S. officials attempt to avert disaster. Better for everyone to vote. Think of it less of a civic duty and more as a preventive maneuver against our certain, horrible demise.