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Election day: Most predictions of the next four years will be wrong (+video)

As President Obama or Mitt Romney will discover, the only predictable thing about foreign and domestic events is unpredictability. Woodrow Wilson didn't foresee World War I. Jimmy Carter called Iran an 'island of stability.' Terrorism got only brief mention in the 2000 Bush-Gore debates.

By John J. Pitney Jr. / November 5, 2012

Keefe Perkins votes in the presidential election on the last day of early voting in Colorado at the Arapahoe County Elections Facility on Nov. 2. Polls show the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney to be neck and neck. Op-ed contributor John J. Pitney Jr. says regardless of who wins, 'the fate of the administration will hinge on things that no one can predict....The winner of the 2012 election will face foreign and domestic jolts. He may even find surprises in his own soul.'

Ed Andrieski/AP

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Claremont, Calif.

Between now and the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, there will be many predictions of what the next four years will bring. Most of those will be wrong. As it always does, the fate of the administration will hinge on things that no one can predict.

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COMMENTARY: Stephen Walt analyzes the many complex and vitally important issues underlying US-Middle East policy as part of the American Conversation Essentials series.

The future is full of unknowns. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson campaigned for president on domestic issues, and his 1913 inaugural address did not even mention the words “war” or “military.” When he delivered that speech, he surely had never heard of the man Gavrilo Princip. In 1914, this obscure young Serb assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, triggering a chain of events that would result in World War I.

Closer to our own time, Jimmy Carter was another president whose campaign had a domestic emphasis. In 1976, he made brief remarks questioning the scope of arms sales to Iran, but otherwise had little to say about that country.

During his first year as president, he said: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” Within a couple of years, that island of stability had become a caldron of chaos. Revolutionaries deposed the shah and seized American hostages, launching a crisis that would become an obsession for the United States and a political disaster for Mr. Carter.

Around the same time, another country supplied another shock. Neither Carter nor Gerald Ford had talked about Afghanistan during their 1976 contest. In fact, “Afghanistanism” was a slang term for excessive concern with unimportant parts of the world.

In December 1979, Afghanistan suddenly became important when the Soviet Union invaded. Carter, who had once spoken of an “inordinate fear of communism,” said that the invasion “has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”

CIA-backed rebels eventually pushed the Soviets out, and Afghanistan again receded from the American mind. In the Bush-Gore debates of 2000, the name of the country never came up. Even more striking in hindsight is that the issue of terrorism got only fleeting attention from the candidates. Instead of arguing about who would get tougher against our enemies, candidate George W. Bush said – and Vice President Al Gore agreed – that the US should be a strong but “humble nation.”

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