The Devil We Don’t Know

Washington – It may not be the economy, stupid.

Then again, JamesCarville’s famous maxim about the 1992 presidential campaign might wellbe valid in 2012. But it’s quite possible that on Election Day, voters’most urgent concerns — economic or not — will be driven by overseas eventsthat neither President Obama nor his Republican opponent can predict orcontrol.

Analysts, commentatorsand, yes, columnists will fill the days between now and November with sageassessments of the campaigns. Does Obama have the right strategy? DoesMitt Romney have the right message? Which party has the better ground game?Which candidate’s loose-remark-of-the-day qualifies as a certified gaffe?

But it might bemore pertinent to ask, for example, what the North Korean news agency meantMonday with its threat to reduce parts of Seoul to ash with a militaryattack “by unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style.”

North Korea’s apocalypticrhetoric can usually be written off as bluster. But the Stalinist dynastyin charge of the world’s most isolated country has an inexperienced youngleader whose first attempt to cover himself in glory — testing a provocativenew long-range missile — was a humiliating failure. Could Kim Jong Eunactually be thinking the unthinkable?

We have to assumethe North Korean regime cares most about its own survival and thus willnot launch a suicidal war. But if Kim and the generals have decided topush the envelope, perhaps with a new nuclear weapons test, the possibilityfor miscalculation is greater than in the past. Kim’s father, the lateKim Jong Il, was a master at knowing just how far he could go without triggeringArmageddon. Let’s hope the kid was taking notes.

As Obama has madeclear, our nation’s geopolitical strategic focus is shifting from the Atlanticto the Pacific — where American interests run into those of the otheremerging global superpower, China. This is why anyone trying to predictthe course of the U.S. election campaign ought to pay attention to thescandal and turmoil that have gripped the Chinese government at a delicatemoment of transition.

It’s a convolutedstory involving money, sex, corruption, betrayal and an alleged homicide.The central fact is that one of China’s most charismatic and powerful politicians— Bo Xilai, until recently the Communist Party boss in Chongqing, an inlandmetropolis of nearly 30 million people — has been sacked. His wife isaccused of murdering a shadowy British businessman who may have helpedthe couple transfer untold millions of ill-gotten dollars into illegaloffshore accounts.

Why might any ofthis matter to U.S. voters? Because the scandal exposes the most seriousthreat to the Chinese government’s legitimacy — widespread corruption— just as the hierarchy prepares to name a new president this fall. Thecollective leadership is acting, basically, like a man caught with hispants down.

As a way of shoringup patriotic support, officials may be tempted to be more aggressive inpushing China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The United Statesmight feel compelled to push back. Then what?

There are other,more obvious international situations that could have a big impact on thepresidential race — beginning, of course, with the war in Afghanistan.Both Obama and Romney lag well behind the public mood, which is for bringingthe troops home now. Both may be tempted to catch up.

Meanwhile, therewill likely be mounting pressure to do something about the brutal war ofrepression being waged by Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It is hard to imaginewhat that “something” might be; an intervention robust enoughto make a difference would have more in common with the all-out Iraq invasionthan with the more limited Libya campaign. But an atrocity can change attitudesovernight.

There’s also thepossibility of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It may nothappen — but if it does, there’s plenty of political danger here for bothcampaigns.

And if the Carvilledictum turns out to be right? Well, stock markets around the world swoonedon Monday — not because of anything U.S. officials said or did but becauseof events in Europe that made investors nervous. The Dutch government fell,after failing to win approval of new austerity measures, while French PresidentNicolas Sarkozy finished second in his bid for re-election and faces arunoff.

It may be thatin 2012 it’s the eurozone crisis, stupid. And there’s nothing Obama orRomney can do about it.