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Commentary & Opinion

Michael Meeropol: Wag The Dog

WAMC listeners in the mid-Hudson Valley are probably acquainted with the free monthly lifestyle magazine Chronogram.   Available from Northern Westchester to Columbia County as well as Orange to Ulster counties, it provides a window into a variety of local activities from music to business to education.   It also is the home of some biting political commentary by the novelist/journalist and Woodstock resident Larry Beinhart.

In the May issue of Chronogram, Mr. Beinhart revisited one of his early novels, AMERICAN HERO which was the basis for the 1997 movie WAG THE DOG.   American Hero was published in 1993 and it involved the use of war to make political hay at home --- an obvious reference to President George H.W. Bush’s 1990 Iraq War.    Mr. Beinhart has also written The Librarian which is another political satire.  Salvation Boulevard  focused on organized religion and was made into a movie by the same name.  Mr. Beinhart has also written columns for a number of outlets including the Huffington Post.   He has been writing for Chronogram for ten years, give or take.  

The movie, Wag the Dog had a somewhat different theme from the book American Hero.   The movie involve a FAKE war, created by a Hollywood producer to distract the public from a sex scandal involving a President running for re-election.  Understand, the movie came out in 1997.  There is no way the people planning and shooting the movie could have known about the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton scandal which broke in January of 1998.  (They might have been moved by the fictionalization in the book Primary Colors which featured a Bill Clinton type candidate who either did or did not have an affair with a character loosely based on Gennifer Flowers, a woman who had claimed to have had a long affair with Clinton.  The book Primary Colors had been published back in 1996.

In August of 1998, Clinton finally admitted publicly that he had had, in his words, “an inappropriate relationship” with Monica Lewinsky.   His efforts to deny everything and paint her as a lying stalker which appeared to be his first line of defense had been destroyed when the FBI used DNA to prove that it was Clinton’s semen on Lewinsky’s dress.   Days after his public admission, Clinton ordered two military attacks.  One was on the El Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries factory in the capital of Sudan, Khartoum -- which U.S. officials said produced chemicals that could be used to make deadly VX nerve gas.   The other set of raids were on six sites in Afghanistan.  They hoped that Osama Bin Laden would be at one of the sites.   It was Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization which had bombed US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania and Clinton and his Defense Secretary made it clear that these were in direct retaliation for the attacks in Africa.   Many people suggested that Clinton’s actions were “wag the dog” bombings designed to divert the public from the Lewinsky scandal.   See for example:  ‘Wag the Dog’ Back in the Spotlight  (August 21, 1998)  available at http://edition.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1998/08/21/wag.the.dog/.   Here’s one quote from the article:  “Look at the movie 'Wag the Dog.' I think this has all the elements of that movie," Rep. Jim Gibbons said. "Our reaction to the embassy bombings should be based on sound credible evidence, not a knee-jerk reaction to try to direct public attention away from his personal problems."

To Beinhart, Trump’s bombing of a Syrian airfield in alleged retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, is a perfect WAG THE DOG moment.   Rather than covering up for a sex scandal (Trump’s entire life is a sex scandal – nothing new here!), this bombing is an attempt to push the investigations of the Russian interference with the 2016 elections off the front pages.   And, Beinhart notes, it did just that.   Even more to the point, it permitted pundits from the far right at Fox News to the “serious” at CNN to suddenly gush that Trump had “become President” and passed his first foreign policy test with flying colors.   Here’s Fareed Zakaria of CNN:  “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night…”   Beinhart quotes USA Today which gushed “Trump hits high mark,” Matt Lewis of the Daily Beast wrote that Trump was “more serious,” and Walter Russell Mead in a Wall Street Journal OP-ED stated, “President Trump faced his first serious foreign-policy test this week … he passed with flying colors.”   CHRONOGRAM (May, 2017), p. 23.

You can’t make this stuff up.  The celebration of war by the punditry is truly disgusting.   It also is absurd.   How does ordering the largest military machine ever assembled on the face of the earth to drop a few bombs say ANYTHING about the ability of the person giving that order to make serious sane judgements and exercise real leadership?    Did the bombing of that airfield change anything militarily on the ground in Syria?    Did it alleviate the suffering of a single Syrian?   Did it bring peace any closer?   Did it “scare” Assad of Syria, or Putin of Russia, or the Iranians or the Lebanese militia Hezbollah into suing for peace with the rebels and accepting American terms for Assad leaving power?    

There is a terrible price that might be paid for the positive reaction of the punditry.   Trump craves praise and the fact that he got it from across the media spectrum for this act of war will unfortunately embolden him to do more of the same in the future.   The Syrian bombing was done relatively carefully   The Russians were tipped off in advance so none were endangered.   But future potential actions pose serious dangers.   Trump could order a military strike on North Korea, condemning more than a million people on the Korean peninsula to death.   (Why would he not do it?   So long as no Americans die here at home, the death of all those Koreans and US military personnel can be justified as making sure we are “safe” from a future North Korean nuclear strike.) Trump’s expanded intervention in Syria might lead to dogfights with Russian jets.  He approved military action in Yemen based on an extremely short briefly from his military advisers.   Recently he dropped the largest bomb ever in Afghanistan.  

As Mr. Beinhart notes in his article, war makes for great TV and, at least in the short run, for great politics.   George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 because he allegedly “kept us safe” after 9-11.   It took from 2002 to 2006 for the public to sour on his war of choice in Iraq.   If it takes that long for the public to sour on Trump’s war-making he will be re-elected in 2020.  Meanwhile, his cabinet full of ex-military officers have the unenviable task of controlling a man with no self-discipline, no empathy for the suffering of people his policies hurt (including civilian victims of the military actions he has already ordered).   They must exercise restraint on him whereas their entire careers have been based on planning and sometimes carrying out what they know how to do best ---  killing people.   Whereas the Founders of our Republic made sure in the Constitution that the military would be under civilian control, they never thought of a civilian like Donald Trump getting anywhere near the Presidency.   They wanted to make sure that the military mind would be focused on carrying out strategies designed by civilian leaders.   The assumption was that civilian control (with Congress appropriating all the money use by the military) would reduce the dangers of militarism.   Here we have the exact opposite.  Irony of ironies --- it’s the Generals who have to control the madman in the White House.

Hopefully, we the people will not be seduced by Trump’s forays into war-making as were so many pundits after he wagged the dog in Syria.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author (with Howard Sherman) of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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