“Wag the Dog,” Revisited

Twenty years ago, Hollywood produced a black comedy, “Wag the Dog,” that involved a sex scandal in the White House less than two weeks before the election.  A spin doctor is brought in to distract the public from the scandal by constructing a diversionary war with Albania.  When the CIA learns of the plot, it sends an agent to confront the spin doctor, who convinces the agency that revealing the deception would be against the best interests of the United States.

One month after the movie was released, a sex scandal actually confronted the Clinton administration, the infamous Monica Lewinsky affair.  What followed was an exercise in the comparison of film and reality as the United States conducted a series of pin-prick strikes against ramshackle al Qaeda training facilities in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that had nothing to do with the production of lethal chemicals.  This is where reality got more interesting than anything in the film.

National security adviser Sandy Berger and Richard Clarke, the chairman of the Counterterrorism and Security Group (CSG), claimed the strike was based on the best intelligence ever collected for such operations, but that was a lie.  The CIA operatives responsible for the soil sample at the pharmaceutical plant found the results inconclusive and called for another investigation.  CIA director George Tenet overruled them, bowing to White House pressure to cite intelligence to justify a military strike.

In a conversation at the National War College, Clarke told me that Tenet, who was to become better known for his “slam dunk” assurances on the intelligence regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, stood by the intelligence.  Later intelligence on the site in Khartoum made it clear that the plant had nothing to do with the production of lethal chemicals or terrorist organizations.  The Clinton administration simply wanted to be seen as doing something.

Like Tenet, Clarke is better known for a different operation, the so-called Plan Delenda, from the Latin “to destroy,” evoking the Roman vow to erase rival Carthage.  In this case, Berger and Clarke were trying to push the interagency process to fight al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.  Ironically, Sudan was one of the few countries in the late 1990s willing to help the Clinton administration arrest bin Laden.

Let’s fast forward to today’s White House, which finds the wheels coming off of the Trump administration.  In a tumultuous first month, Donald Trump has faced a reversal from a federal court; the forced resignation of his national security advisor; the withdrawal of a cabinet appointment; and an unprecedented level of protest activity from the press and the people.  The national security system is so dysfunction that the chief of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command referred to the “unbelievable turmoil” within the government that needed to be “sorted out.”

Sadly, the “wag the dog” scenario could be part of any sorting.  There would be no faster way to change the subject than to find a way to use military power in some surgical fashion.  And there is no one closer to Trump substantively than his counselor Steve Bannon, who has been using his creative energy in recent years with nonfiction agitprop to create anxiety about the need to support apocalyptic anti-globalism.  In his documentary films and his stewardship of Breitbart News, Bannon has warned against the “nihilistic destruction of everything the American people care for.”  Bannon sees the world as a cage-match clash of civilizations and has already placed his mark on the Muslim ban and the need to withdraw from international trade agreements.

Like their current guest, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Trump and Bannon see the West in a war against an expansionist Islamic ideology and radical Islamic terrorism. One of the reasons that Trump and Bannon are willing to overlook substantive differences with Russia and Vladimir Putin is the misguided belief that Moscow would be a close ally in any campaign against the Islamic community.  In yesterday’s press conference with Netanyahu, Trump signed away any U.S. role in moving Israel forward in the peace process.  Meanwhile, Bannon has talked about the need for the kind of “grit and “tenacity, that we’ve seen on the battlefields…fighting for something greater than ourselves.”  On the eve of the election, Bannon stated that “Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan. That’s power.”

In view of the bellicose language of Trump and Bannon, and the fact that Iran has already been put “on notice,” it would not be far fetched to assume that this administration would at least consider the use of a pin-prick military strike to change the subject and hopefully end the domestic tumult in Washington.  I’m not predicting such a maneuver but, if I were an Iranian leader, this might be a good time to recommend that Tehran should keep its head below its breast plate.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.