Wag the Dog?

Facing impeachment in 1998 for lying about having oral sex with a White House intern, then-President Bill Clinton responded by launching cruise missiles against Sudan targeting a pharmaceutical plant that allegedly manufactured nerve gas used by terrorists, and by bombing Afghanistan and Iraq.

Clinton’s actions were right out of the script of the 1998 film, Wag the Dog, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robert Deniro which depicted a phony president starting a phony war in order to distract attention away from his sexual transgressions.

Twenty plus years later, President Donald J. Trump appears to be following the same script in an attempt to divert attention from his impeachment by Congress for allegedly trying to blackmail a foreign ally into investigating a political adversary.

The target for the diversionary war this time is Iran.

On Friday, January 3rd, President Trump authorized, without Congressional sanction, the drone assassination of Major General Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps and second most powerful person in Iran.”

This action followed up on air strikes targeting pro-Iranian militias in Iraq that had waged an attack on a U.S. military base near Kirkuk and killed an American military contractor.

Iran has been a bête noir of America’s foreign policy elite since 1979, when Islamic revolutionaries overthrew the American-client regime of the Shah Mohmmed Reza Pahlevi and declared America to be “the Great Satan.”

In recent years, a great scare campaign has been launched over Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

After his election, Mr. Trump pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed by the Obama administration, which mandated a loosening of U.S. sanctions in return for Iran’s suspension of its alleged nuclear weapons program.

Trump at the time stated that the JCPOA was a “bad deal.”

His administration in turn adopted a policy of “maximum pressure,” whose centerpiece was the ratcheting up of economic sanctions on Iran.

The idea was that Iran would buckle under the pressure and halt any production of nuclear weapons.

By refusing the sale of Iranian oil, the sanctions, however, have helped to raise oil prices to the benefit of U.S. geostrategic rival, Russia.

Iran, furthermore, has every incentive to move forward with a nuclear weapons program as the country feels that it is under siege and threat of attack.

Prior to this most recent escalation in Iraq, the Trump administration had accused the Iranians of seizing commercial ships on the Straits of Hormuz – where one third of the world’s seaborne oil and gas supply passes through – and shot down an Iranian drone after Iran shot down a U.S. drone which violated its airspace.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also accused Iran of bombing a major Saudi oil refinery, though later Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed credit.

In early December, the Trump administration decided to revoke a sanctions waiver on Russia, whose state nuclear company Rosatom was assisting Iranian scientists at the Fordow underground uranium enrichment facility near Qom to produce nuclear isotopes for medical purposes – an effort at peaceful reconversion.

The Arms Control Association warned that by canceling the waiver, the Trump administration would jeopardize any efforts at nonproliferation.

Rosatom indeed suspended its operations primarily because of a desire to avoid being targeted by sanctions.

The failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy may actually be by design.

By boxing Iran into a corner and pushing it to develop its nuclear program, the Trump administration can then cry about the “Iran nuclear threat” and have more reasons to bomb the country, escalate the current confrontation and carry out the long-dreamed of neoconservative goal of regime change.

This new war would in turn enable Trump to deflect attention away from the impeachment circus and show off his toughness on the eve of the 2020 election – another real-life enaction of the Wag the Dog film.

Jeremy Kuzmarov is the author of The Russians are Coming, Again: The First Cold War as Tragedy, the Second as Farce (Monthly Review Press, 2018) and Obama’s Unending Wars: Fronting for the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2019).