How Donald Trump Successfully Wagged the Dog, and More

Although I have never seen Donald Trump with a pet, I do believe that he wagged the dog when he ordered the assassination of the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. The expression “wag the dog” comes from a 1997 film satire in which a president, caught up in a sex scandal, uses a war to divert attention from his peccadillo. It was released at about the time of the Monica Lewinsky/ President Clinton scandal and later U.S. bombing in Sudan. In Trump’s case, he more than wagged the dog. By ratcheting up tensions with Iran, he also increased his stature as commander-in-chief to the detriment of Democratic candidates and reinforced his image as a rogue head of state.

That Donald Trump had the Iranian general killed to minimize his impeachment cannot be proven or denied. Nevertheless, U.S. government officials continue to seek justification for the killing of a foreign government official on foreign soil with all kinds of shaky explanations of why it was done to counter an imminent danger that has never been convincingly explained. No legal justification seems reasonable. In fact, a State Department spokesperson indicated that no legal justification was even necessary.

So, given that there seems no reasonable legal justification, the wag the dog theory has possibilities.

But beyond the wag the dog theory, there is also the question of what it means for Trump’s Democratic opponents. Can you see Elizabeth Warren as commander-in-chief? Or Bernie Sanders? Neither Warren nor Sanders gains by the projection of Trump as a decisive military leader in case the conflict with Iran escalates, perhaps Bernie less so as he repeatedly reminds us that he has been against wars going back to Vietnam.

And Mayor Pete? Although Buttigieg did serve in the military, the 37-year-old was an intelligence officer and armed driver. Neither of these positions indicate that he would have the necessary experience or command authority in case of a serious confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

Which leads us to Joe Biden. Although Trump and others maintain that Biden would be Trump’s most serious opponent, the former vice-president has no military background. Given that the Democratic party is usually considered soft on defense, and that Biden was an agreeing vice-president under a president who refused to assassinate Soleimani or punish Syria when the red line of using chemical weapons was crossed, for a certain electorate Trump trumps Biden as being decisive and strong.

In addition, Biden was whole heartedly in favor of the Iraq War, which he has since had to explain away, just as he has had to explain away how he ran the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination process. After announcing his candidacy in 2019, Biden reportedly called Anita Hill to “express his regrets.” Not the stuff of a decisive leader that seems to be the new normal as a Trumpian criteria.

And beyond U.S. politics, the world now looks at the United States president as a madman. The madman theory goes back to Richard Nixon’s foreign policy. While government officials use rational choice theory to anticipate the next moves of other countries’ leaders, the madman theory tries to portray a leader as irrational and volatile, giving that leader the advantage of being difficult to predict.

The media tells us that Trump was given a list of Iranian scenarios to choose from. The assassination, we are told, was the most radical. Some even said that the planners hesitated to give it to Trump because they thought he would never accept it. In other words, for the people within the government, assassinating Soleimani was not a reasonable choice. Hence, the order to go ahead with the assassination plays into portraying Trump as impulsive, which is meant to throw off other countries’ calculations of what he will do.

The descriptions of the behind-the-scene of Trump’s order to kill is intended to put all rational formula on hold. The madman theory fits perfectly into all we are being given as information about Trump’s decision-making process.

(Perhaps Soleimani’s death will also lead people to re-examine the decision-making process by which U.S. presidents order assassinations. And this not just as far as Executive vs. Congressional authority is concerned as well as the War Powers Act. What criteria did Barack Obama use when he fingered people to be killed by U.S. agents? The major difference here is that Trump ordered a government official to be killed while Obama, we are told, was targeting mere civilians.)

The movie “Wag the Dog” was a satire. But just as the virtual has become real and the normal has become the new normal, Donald Trump has taken the political beyond film and satire. And he doesn’t even need a pet to wag the dog.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.