Whoever wins Nov. 6, the U.S. — and the world — will enter an extremely fraught 75 days after the polls close.
The interregnum between elections and mid-January inaugurals is always a testing time for the U.S. And despite the Obama administration's aversion to exercising America's paramount post-World War II role, the fate of the rest of the world still depends to a high degree on Washington's intellectual fashions and policy decisions. That leadership may be sorely tested by the current economic and political crisis, from either a second Obama four-year term or a Romney "transition" government with scurrying politicians preoccupied with changing personalities and, perhaps, parties.
The awaiting threats span the spectrum:
Terrorism — The events in Benghazi proved the world has been living with false assumptions. Jihadist terrorism, seemingly decapitated, has spread to North Africa, Yemen, West Africa and Southeast Asia, and is creeping into Syria. Al Qaeda's followers are intent on murder — whether it be a 14-year-old child from Pakistan's Swat Valley advocating female education, a Punjabi governor calling for religious tolerance, the comrades-in-arms of a mad U.S. military psychiatrist at Fort Hood or security trainers with whom the Pentagon hoped to stabilize Afghanistan. Furthermore, with each "victory," the jihadists' claque on the Internet's social networks swells. Even twisted young immigrant students and imams in U.S. mosques recruit for al Qaeda plots, despite the supposed opposition from North America's Muslim "silent majority." There's mounting evidence that the strategy of "leading from behind" in Libya — presented as a great strategic victory by the Obama administration — is seen in the Arab-Muslim world as weakness. U.S. and Anglo-French policy replaced Col. Gadhafi with political chaos and a flow of unchecked weapons on which al Qaeda thrives. Inadequate preparations for a bitter 9/11 anniversary in Benghazi, followed by hesitant, confused and lying administration spokesmen and mushrooming security services scandals, feed a suspicion that thousands of American diplomats, nongovernmental aid workers and missionaries overseas may be sitting ducks for low-level lethal attacks.
Economic crisis abroad — Despite continued patchwork solutions, the euro still faces a possible sudden collapse of confidence, with the resulting problems for continental and British banks and financial markets quickly being felt in the U.S. Already, declining American export prospects reflect the EU downturn, which has even hit the German economy.
China's economy, too, droops, with implications even more difficult to calculate. While a cataclysmic slowdown in Beijing is generally pooh-poohed, the implications of a possible Chinese "hard landing" could be the temporary collapse of world trade and the global payment system. If Israel moved to eliminate the existential threat posed by Iran's mullahs, the potential disruption to Persian Gulf oil supplies would be felt not only in Asia and Europe but at U.S. gas pumps.
Domestic economic crisis — A Republican takeover of the White House and perhaps the Senate would mean sharp policy changes, even in a lame-duck congressional session before Mr. Romney took office. A second term for President Obama, on the other hand, could continue the bitter argument over taxes and deficit. The president's rumored threat to veto legislation extending the Bush tax cuts that does not raise taxes for the wealthy is probably a bluff. But the continued executive-legislative gridlock would reinforce business uncertainty -- perhaps the leading culprit of the weak recovery — and dump the economy into another recession.
Lame-duck mischief — The scariest scenario is if a defeated Obama administration were tempted to continue to implement policies it has pursued, especially should there be a narrow or contested victory for Mr. Romney. President Obama has already stretched constitutional executive powers to a breaking point, whether it's usurping immigration procedures still under consideration in the Congress, letting the Environmental Protection Agency run berserk, or defending the actions of an attorney general under indictment for contempt of Congress.
There is even the outside chance next month of a tie in the Electoral College or another vote-counting dispute, sending the election into the House of Representatives, or again as in 2000, to the Supreme Court. That would likely produce public instability. "Flash mobs" and increased paramilitary arming? Let's not go there.
Were I a gambler, I would demand long odds for any of these catastrophes coming to pass. The world, perhaps even the Islamists, will wait out a new American government. But unanticipated consequences of earlier actions and unforeseen events are still the order of the day.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.