Wag the Dog

Crisis Scenarios for Deflecting Attention from the President’s Woes

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In the 1998 movie Wag the Dog, White House spinmeister Conrad Brean seeks to deflect public attention from a brewing scandal over an alleged sexual encounter in the White House between the president and an all-too-young Girl Scout-type by concocting an international crisis. Advised by a Hollywood producer (played with delicious perversity by Dustin Hoffman), Brean “leaks” a fraudulent report that Albania has acquired a suitcase-sized nuclear device and is seeking to smuggle it into the United States. This obviously justifies an attention-diverting military reprisal. The press falls for the false report (sound familiar?) and all discussion of the president’s sex scandal disappears from view — or, as Brean would have it, the “tail” of manufactured crisis wags the “dog” of national politics.

As Brean explains all this to the White House staff in the film, American presidents have often sought to distract attention from their political woes at home by heating up a war or crisis somewhere else. Now that the current occupant of the White House is facing roiling political scandals of his own, it stands to reason that he, too, or his embattled adviser Karl Rove (not to speak of his besieged Vice President, Dick Cheney) may be thinking along such lines. Could Rove — today’s real-life version of Conrad Brean — already be cooking up a “wag the dog” scenario? Only those with access to the innermost sanctum of George Bush’s White House can know for sure, but it is hardly an improbable thought, given that they have done so in the past.

It bears repeating that this administration — more than any other in recent times — has employed deception and innuendo to mold public opinion and advance its political agenda. Indeed, the very scandal now enveloping the White House — the apparent conspiracy to punish whistle-blower Joseph Wilson by revealing the covert CIA identity of his wife, Valerie Plame — is rooted in the President’s drive to mobilize support for the invasion of Iraq by willfully distorting Iraqi weapons capabilities. Why then would he and his handlers shrink from exaggerating or distorting new intelligence about other hostile powers, and then using such distortions to ignite an international crisis?

Add to this the fact that a rising level of belligerence is already detectable in the statements of top administration officials regarding potential adversaries in the Middle East and Asia. Most striking perhaps was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s truculent appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on October 19. Under questioning from both Democratic and Republican Senators, she refused to rule out the use of military force against Syria or Iraq, nor would she acknowledge any presidential obligation to consult Congress before engaging in such an action. Asked by Senator Paul Sarbanes (Dem.-Md.) whether the administration actually “entertains the possibility of using military action against Syria or against Iran” and “could undertake to do that without obtaining from Congress an authorization for such action,” she replied: “What I said is that the President doesn’t take any of his options off the table and that I will not say anything that constrains his authority as Commander in Chief.” While insisting that the administration was still relying on diplomacy to resolve its differences with Syria and Iran, she left no doubt as to Bush’s preparedness (and right) to employ force at any time or place of his choosing.

There are many who claim that Bush could not possibly contemplate military action against Iran, Syria, or any other hostile power at present. American forces, they argue, are stretched to the limit in Iraq and so lack the capacity to undertake a significant campaign in another country. At the very least, these analysts overlook the massive American air and naval capabilities hardly engaged in Iraq, and certainly available for use elsewhere. But this is not the point. As Wag the Dog suggested, war itself is not the only way to distract public attention from the President’s domestic woes. An atmosphere of crisis in which rumors of war or preparations for war come to overshadow all else might well do the trick — and administration officials don’t need fresh armies to accomplish this, only plausible scenarios for the escalation of existing foreign troubles. These, unfortunately, are all too easy to find.

What then are the most promising scenarios at hand for such a purpose? Many such scenarios might be envisioned, but the most credible ones — barring a major new terrorist attack on the United States — would entail a military showdown with Syria, Iran, or North Korea.

The Syria Option

Syria appears the most likely candidate for an instant stir-and-mix foreign-policy crisis. To start with, it has already been branded a pariah state — both because of its suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and because the Bush administration regularly charges it with facilitating the entry of foreign jihadists into Iraq.

The issue of Syrian involvement in Hariri’s assassination arose immediately following the February 14, 2005 bomb explosion that killed him (and 22 others) in downtown Beirut. Because Hariri had long campaigned for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, his supporters insisted that Damascus must have played a role in the explosion. The United States and Great Britain persuaded the U.N. Security Council to initiate an investigation of the explosion. A preliminary report by the international team formed to investigate, released on October 24, strongly suggested that Syrian officials had played a key role in organizing the attack. Washington and London then returned to the Security Council on October 31and pushed through a resolution that calls on the Syrian government to cooperate fully with the continuing investigation and make available for questioning any of its top officials suspected of involvement. This resolution also warns of unspecified “further action” — an obvious threat of economic sanctions — if Syria fails to comply. The ante was raised further on November 7, when UN investigators requested interviews with six top Syrian officials, including General Assef Shawkat, the powerful brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad.

From the very beginning, the White House has seized on these developments to portray Syria as an outlaw state and set the stage for a diplomatic assault on the Assad regime. Condoleezza Rice has been particularly harsh. After the October 31 resolution was adopted, for instance, she declared, “With our decision today, we show that Syria has isolated itself from the international community — through its false statements, its support for terrorism, its interference in the affairs of its neighbors, and its destabilizing behavior in the Middle East.” Then came the clincher: “Now the Syrian government must make a strategic decision to fundamentally change its behavior.”

What changes must the Syrian government make? What are the consequences if it fails to comply? There are no clear answers to these questions, nor are there likely to be any. The intent, so far as can be determined, is not to reach some sort of peaceful resolution of this issue but rather to keep Damascus, and the rest of the world, on edge, expecting some new crisis at any moment. This strategy — “rattling the cage,” as it’s known in Washington — was reportedly adopted by senior aides to President Bush at an October 1st meeting at the White House. According to the New York Times, this strategy entails putting relentless pressure on the Assad regime, forcing it to make humiliating concessions to Washington (thus weakening it domestically) or face increasingly severe reprisals from Washington and its allies

The public face of this assault is the diplomatic campaign being waged by Condoleezza Rice and her associates at the Department of State. The Department of Defense, meanwhile, is conducting the dark side of this campaign, involving nothing short of a covert, low-level military campaign against Syria, including commando raids by Iraqi-based U.S. forces into Syrian territory. These raids — first reported by the New York Times in October — are supposedly intended to impede efforts by Iraqi insurgent forces or foreign jihadists to use Syria as a staging point for forays into Iraq. Undoubtedly, however, they constitute but another component of the “rattling the cage” strategy, designed to keep the Assad regime off balance, tempting or provoking it into clashes with American forces that would only provide a justification for further escalations of the attacks.

It is easy to see how this could lead to something closer to the outbreak of full-scale military hostilities with Syria or, more likely, escalating air and missile attacks. Indeed, military analyst William Arkin of the Washington Post reports that the Pentagon has already commenced full-scale planning for such contingencies. “U.S. intelligence agencies and military planners [have] received instructions to prepare up-to-date target lists for Syria and to increase their preparations for potential military operations against Damascus,” he observed recently. Such operations could include “cross-border operations to…destroy safe havens supporting the Iraqi insurgency” as well as “attacks on the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.” Attacks of this type could be mounted at any time, and should be considered highly likely if Damascus rebuffs U.N. efforts to compel testimony by its senior officials or if conditions worsen in Iraq (as is likely).

The standoff between the United States and Syria has already been ratcheted up to dangerous levels and could be intensified even further in the weeks ahead if Assad refuses to turn over his brother-in-law and other top officials for questioning (and possible arrest) by the U.N. investigating team. Under these circumstances, it would be all too easy for the White House to create a brink-of-war environment in Washington, possibly by stepping up commando raids on the Iraq-Syrian border or by threatening to bomb terrorist “sanctuaries” inside Syria. Even if such strikes were merely hinted at, discussion of a possible war with Syria would monopolize media coverage of the White House and so deflect attention from the President’s political woes.

The Iran Option

After Syria, the ongoing imbroglio over Iran’s nuclear activities represents the most promising option for a “wag the dog” scenario. This dispute has approached moments of acute crisis before, only to subside following a concession by one side or another — and this could certainly happen again. At present, however, a very serious confrontation appears to be in the offing. While long in the making, the current standoff with Iran hasn’t been eased any by that country’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seems to be prone to making inflammatory statements. (Israel, he said recently, “must be wiped off the map.“) Nonetheless, the primary issue is Iran’s apparent determination to engage in nuclear activities viewed in Washington as indicative of a covert Iranian drive to manufacture nuclear weapons. Here, a bit of background is useful.

Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and, in accordance with the treaty, has asserted its right to build nuclear power plants and to construct the infrastructure needed to “enrich” natural uranium — that is, increase the proportion of the fissionable isotope U-235 — for use in its reactors. Over the years, however, Iran has violated its NPT obligations by building uranium enrichment facilities out of sight of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These facilities include a plant to convert uranium ore into a gas, uranium hexaflouride (UF6), that can be introduced into high-speed centrifuges which separate U-238 from the lighter U-235, allowing for the gradual accumulation of “enriched” uranium — the raw material for both power reactors and, in highly enriched form, nuclear weapons. The Iranians insist that they want the enriched material for peaceful purposes only; but their concealment of these efforts in the past leads easily to speculation that they ultimately seek to accumulate highly-enriched uranium for a future Iranian bomb.

The Bush administration has already made up its mind on this subject: “Iran [has] concealed a large-scale, covert nuclear weapons program for over eighteen years,” then Undersecretary of State (and now U.N. Ambassador) John R. Bolton asserted on August 17, 2004. “The costly infrastructure to perform all of these [enrichment] activities goes well beyond any conceivable peaceful nuclear program,” he added. “No comparable oil-rich nation has ever engaged, or would be engaged, in this set of activities — or would pursue them for nearly two decades behind a continuing cloud of secrecy and lies to IAEA inspectors and the international community — unless it was dead set on building nuclear weapons.”

Despite such American assertions, the IAEA and the international community have not reached a consensus on Iran’s ultimate intentions. The IAEA has, however, repeatedly stated that Iran is in violation of its obligations to fully disclose all nuclear-related activities and to abstain from actions that could lead to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. In 2003, a “trio” of European Union nations — Britain, France, and Germany — secured an agreement from Teheran to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment activities while negotiations were under way for a permanent suspension in exchange for a package of EU economic benefits. But neither these negotiations, nor repeated IAEA warnings, have fully halted Iranian enrichment programs. Now, the Bush administration is calling for an IAEA resolution that would find Iran in full breach of its NPT obligations and refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council for possible actions which could include the imposition of economic and other sanctions.

At a meeting on Sept 24, the IAEA Board of Governors formally held Iran in breach of its NPT obligations, but did not immediately refer the matter to the Security Council, presumably to leave more room for negotiations. President Ahmadinejad, however, has since rejected the IAEA resolution, and Iran subsequently announced the resumption of UF6 production in a strong rebuke to the EU trio. Meanwhile, Washington has stepped up its efforts to persuade other states that Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons. A showdown is likely in late November or early December, when the IAEA Board next convenes.

Were this matter to be sent to the United Nations, it is unlikely that harsh sanctions would be imposed as Russia and China, both allied to Iran, sit on the Security Council and possess veto power over any vote. What then might the White House do if Iran announces the full-scale resumption of nuclear enrichment activities? Under such circumstances, a military strike against nuclear facilities in Iran has to be considered a genuine possibility. After all, President Bush has already declared that the United States will not “tolerate” the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, a clear expression of his willingness to employ military force. In addition, as early as last January, Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker magazine that U.S. Special Operations Forces units were already conducting secret forays into Iranian territory to pinpoint the location of hidden nuclear installations in preparation for any future decision to launch an attack.

Here again, the kindling exists for a full-blown international crisis. Although the European trio along with Russia and China are determined to avoid a military confrontation with Iran, the Bush administration clearly feels no such inhibitions. It has already laid the groundwork for air and missile strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities and has refused — in Condoleezza Rice’s phrase — to take any “options off the table.” Even the strong hint of an impending assault on Iran would probably push crude oil prices to stratospheric levels and invite anger and concern around the world, but this may not be enough to deter Bush and his advisers from initiating such a crisis if they saw no other way to boost the President’s approval ratings.

The North Korean Option

Although less appealing than the Syrian or Iranian options, a scenario entailing possible conflict with North Korea is also likely to be on any White House list of future provocations. This scenario is less appealing than the others because everyone knows that an all-out conflict with North Korea would probably produce a horrendous bloodbath and might even trigger first an Asian economic, and then a global, economic meltdown. Any move to crank up such a crisis to dangerous levels would also meet with fierce resistance from China, Russia, South Korea, and the rest of the international community. At the same time, however, North Korea has long been branded an outlaw state and its nuclear-weapons activities are far more advanced than anything conceivably under way in Iran. The Defense Department also possesses a very robust air, ground, and naval presence in the region, so a confrontation on the Korean Peninsula need not even require the redeployment of American forces from Iraq — as would presumably be the case in a war scenario involving Syria or Iran.

North Korea is believed to have begun a secret nuclear weapons program after the end of the Korean War. However, under the so-called Agreed Framework of 1994, it pledged to cease all such activities in return for a basket of economic and political incentives from the United States and its allies. Both sides complied with some aspects of the agreement but balked at others. The Clinton administration was well on its way toward resolving these inconsistencies when George W. Bush assumed the presidency in early 2001.

Soon after taking office, Bush foreclosed any serious diplomatic contact with the North Koreans and froze many of America’s obligations under the Agreed Framework. In his 2002 State of the Union address, he included North Korea in his famed “axis of evil.” In response, the North Koreans announced that they were no longer bound by the Agreed Framework and had resumed their work on the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Rather than deal with Pyongyang directly on such critical nuclear-proliferation matters, the White House insisted than any future negotiations had to be conducted on a multilateral basis. China subsequently agreed to convene “six-party” talks — involving the United States, Japan, Russia, the two Koreas, and itself — for this purpose.

At a September meeting of the six-party group, the North Koreans finally agreed to abandon their nuclear-weapons activities but only in return for significant economic benefits from the other parties and non-aggression assurances about an American attack. In subsequent statements, Pyongyang indicated that any such step would be predicated as well on a promise by the other participants to supply them with a light-water nuclear reactor (that could only be used for generating electricity). The United States has since ruled out any commitment of this sort, but has suggested that various incentives might be provided once North Korea commenced the irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear-weapons program.

At this point, there is reason to believe that a peaceful resolution of the dispute is within reach. China and South Korea have worked hard to promote a constructive stance on Pyongyang’s part, but it is a situation that could turn sour again in a diplomatic instant. As if to highlight that possibility, the United States has recently bolstered its military capabilities in the area — sending fifteen F-117 “stealth” bombers and other advanced weapons to South Korea and announcing other efforts aimed at isolating North Korea.

The Bush administration has many levers it could pull should a decision be made to provoke a fresh confrontation with North Korea. No doubt this would prove unpopular with China and South Korea, along with most of the rest of the world, but it would be guaranteed to produce a crisis atmosphere in Washington and so distract attention from escalating Presidential problems at home. As a result, it cannot be excluded as a potential wag-the-dog scenario.

Minus a microphone (or a leaker) in the Oval Office, it is impossible for outsiders to determine what attention-grabbing scenarios President Bush, his Vice President, and his closest advisers might be discussing at the moment. To some extent, the state of play will be shaped as well by the unpredictable actions of foreign leaders, especially the leaders and chief aides of Syria, Iran, and North Korea. But if past White House behavior is any indication, we can safely assume that the President’s men are considering every option for turning these foreign crises into a compelling distraction from the administration’s current political malaise. They have already shown by their decisions in Iraq that they are prepared to spill a lot of blood in pursuit of political advantage, and so the possibility that a contrived crisis with Syria, Iran, or North Korea might erupt into something much greater — even a full-scale war or economic meltdown — may be unlikely to deter them from a wag-the-dog maneuver.

Michael T. Klare is the Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Owl Books) as well as Resource Wars, The New Landscape of Global Conflict

Copyright 2005 Michael T. Klare

This piece first appeared, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.


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