The US presidential election provides ample opportunity for America’s enemies to contemplate, in the weeks between voting and the inauguration on Jan. 20, their own activity.
This period of time is supposed to allow for an orderly transfer of power. The evidence so far suggests this might not happen this time, which would raise many questions about the immediate future of the US. It is important to recognize that a past event can have major implications for what happens next.
It is worth remembering, for example, the “hanging chad” election episode 20 years ago, which caused delays that likely contributed to the success of the 9/11 attacks.
As the results of the Nov. 2, 2000 presidential election came in from around the country and the Electoral College vote started to take shape, it became clear that the result in Florida was going to determine not only the winner of that state’s 25 electoral votes but also the next occupant of the Oval Office.
Although Gore won the national popular vote by about half-a-million ballots, the all-important Electoral College counts from the other 49 states (and the District of Columbia) were so close that whoever won Florida would be the overall winner.
However the margin in the Sunshine State was extremely close. While it is predicted that the gap between the candidates in Florida this year appears to be in the thousands or even tens of thousands, the difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 was measured in hundreds.
Ultimately, it came down to only 537 disputed votes out of the 6 million cast in the state. Some votes had been cast using machines that punched a hole in the ballot paper to denote choice of candidate, but in some cases the holes had not been completely punched. What followed was a five-week legal battle over the ballots, recounts, the election rules, the law and the courts.
The Democrats lost in the state’s circuit court, but that decision was reversed by the Florida Supreme Court. The Republicans appealed that ruling to the US Supreme Court, which voted 7-2 to end the Florida court’s ordered recount.
Bush v. Gore is regarded as one of the most politically consequential decisions in the history of the Supreme Court, and one that damaged its preferred image of itself as an institution far removed from everyday partisan politics.
The post-election arguments also created problems for the transition of power. Although Bush did take the oath of office as scheduled on Jan. 20, 2001, the prolonged legal dispute led to delays in making critical appointments throughout the US government. This caused gaps that compromised the ability of officials to “connect the dots” about terrorist activity at the time, which ultimately made it easier for 9/11 to happen.
Part of the reason why 9/11 was such a success for the terrorists was the highly toxic political environment in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, and the subsequent delays it caused. Therefore the effect that a legal battle over election results can have on capability and capacity is clear.
Fast forward to the 2020 presidential election and the bad guys — if you will — could be making their own plans in the knowledge that a presidential transition, and this one in particular, is a time when the US might be at its weakest in terms of dealing with international crises.
They have had months to think about what to do between November and January — and beyond. The distraction of the US electoral process, and what might happen next, raises concerns about the potential activities of state and non-state actors to sow panic and discord.
America’s enemies want to see greater divisions within US society. They recognize that there is a fatigue in the country, and weakening American resolve during a transition is a stated goal. Interrupting processes related to the election by exacerbating tensions is one way to prolong the country’s current crisis, by adding political upheaval to the problems caused by the pandemic.
What happens in this election cycle over the coming months will therefore be key to international security. There is never a gap in US military capability and, in fact, antagonizing America during these turbulent months might provoke a sharper response that sends a message to the nation’s enemies to “back off.”
Those enemies have a variety of tactics, techniques and procedures they could use to interrupt and further confuse US society. The big, shocking ideas of the old days, such as flying airplanes into buildings, might be seen again — perhaps in some other large strike, perhaps involving a dirty bomb or a kinetic attack using methods such as decapitation, stabbings, and car ramming.
Force protection (a term used by the US military to describe preventive measures taken to mitigate hostile actions in specific areas) is important and, combined with lockdowns, helps security officials monitor for plots, plans and other threatening activity. Preemption will be key in the coming months and the coordination of information is vital.
Overseas, America’s enemies might make sudden moves by capturing ships, claiming sovereignty over areas of land, starting new conflicts for strategic gain, or testing nuclear missiles and weapons. This moment of time is when other countries around the world will show their strength, while the US is at its weakest, politically.
With the exception of North Korea, most US adversaries, such as Cuba, Iran, China and Venezuela, are hoping Joe Biden wins the presidential election. America’s allies are split: The governments of Germany, Japan and Australia want to see Biden in the White House, for example, while those in India, Israel and the UK would prefer Donald Trump to win a second term.
However for some countries, and terrorist or militia organizations, the optimal outcome would be neither Biden nor Trump but a prolonged period of election chaos.