“President’s Trump Card May Be N. Korea If Flynn Is Threat to Him” ran the headline in the Saturday New York Daily News. The Daily News does not use the phrase “Wag the Dog,” but the association is obvious. Wag the Dog was a 1997 film, based on a novel, in which an American President engineers a war in order to distract the public’s attention from a sex scandal (molesting an underage “Firefly Girl.” Roy Moore, take note.)
The war in Wag the Dog was faked, conjured up by a Hollywood film director (Dustin Hoffman) acting at the behest of a Washington spin doctor played by Robert De Niro. (You want me to fake a war, the director asks? No, no, De Niro assures him. Not a war: a “pageant.”)
If it is true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the producers of Wag the Dog must have been tickled pink when their script came true—with one major difference. This time the war was real.
Wag the Dog was released in December 1997. In January 1998, President Bill Clinton’s Oval Office shenanigans with White House intern Monica Lewinsky were revealed. A grand jury was impaneled to investigate whether the President had lied under oath about the affair. On August 20, 1998, the second day of Lewinsky’s testimony, Clinton launched cruise missiles at suspected Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan. Clinton claimed that the factory was producing nerve gas for Al-Qaeda. What it was actually producing was medicines. With one blow, the US destroyed the source of half of Sudan’s pharmaceuticals. Former CIA analyst and senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, Professor Melvin Goodman of Johns Hopkins University, is just one authority who maintains that Clinton knew perfectly well that the factory was not producing chemical weapons.
Even when sex isn’t involved, the versatile Wag the Dog strategy comes in handy. Last week, General Michael Flynn, briefly Trump’s National Security Advisor, pleaded guilty to collusion with Russia while serving on the Trump campaign. Observes the Daily News: “As Trump contemplates the walls closing in on him in Washington, he will not fail to see that North Korea is his oyster, which he can open with a sword.”
The Daily News is not alone in suggesting that a US attack on North Korea is Donald Trump’s Get Out of Jail Free card. Writing in Common Dreams, Juan Cole says that Trump’s “cratering” approval ratings combined with Trump’s “cryptic but dire threats” are a formula for a Wag the Dog scenario. Cole rightly observes that “Americans rally around the flag when the US goes to war, and presidents know this.” Cole adds: “George W. Bush was widely viewed as a buffoon before 9/11 and the Iraq War…. The war likely saved his presidency, and that may be one of the reasons Bush launched it.”
On Facebook, comments abound that Trump will “start a war” in order to save himself. I don’t disagree, but what galls me is the formulation “start a war.” We ought to say “start another war.” Trump is not unique as a warmonger president. But even intelligent, well-informed people forget the many wars the US was involved in well before Trump’s Inauguration. In Afghanistan, the US has been fighting for sixteen years with no end in sight. President George W. Bush gave us that war as well as the invasion of Iraq. Nobel Peace Prize winner President Barack Obama conducted hundreds of armed drone strikes which killed innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The NATO air strikes on Libya instigated by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton replaced Muammar Gaddafi’s largely secular dictatorship with religious fanatics and slave markets. In what may be a historical first, President Obama both ended and restarted the same war. Obama withdrew US troops from Iraq in 2011, but in August 2014 commenced air strikes on ISIS in Iraq. Obama subsequently returned ground troops to Iraq. Obama also pursued ISIS into Syria with air strikes beginning in September 2014. Shouldn’t Trump have a war he can call his very own?
Which brings us back to Korea. The Daily News asks of Mueller’s investigation: “If we approach the nuclear brink, or if war itself commences, will Washington continue with a protracted process aimed at cutting the legs out from under America’s commander-in-chief?”
Possibly. A Wag the Dog strategy could fail under several scenarios:
Enough Americans realize that the only reason for a US attack on North Korea is to save Trump’s bacon.
Trump can’t keep the pot boiling in Korea forever. Eventually, Trump will have to either attack Korea or back down. Even if Robert Mueller suspends his investigation during a US war with the DPRK, it is a fair bet he would pick it up again once the crisis is past.
If Trump really wants to distract us, he could order a nuclear strike on North Korea. In that case, we must hope that the military tells him: Not so fast there, Buckaroo. In 1974, as Nixon was about to be forced from office and was disappearing into a whisky bottle, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ignore any Nixon order to launch nuclear weapons.
Today’s Schlesinger may be Air Force General John Hyten. Hyten is commander of Strategic Command (STRATCOM) which oversees US nuclear forces. Hyten told the Halifax International Security Forum that he would advise President Trump that a nuclear attack on North Korea was illegal and alternative options would be worked out. We must hope that other members of the military are willing to risk their careers by following General Hyten’s lead.
If we want to avoid war with North Korea, we have to defuse Trump’s hostility towards Kim Jong-un. We need to get the President to believe that Kim is his kind of guy. How can we do that?
I’ve got it! Let’s tell Trump that Kim hates Muslims and Mexicans.