On Christmas Day 1997, the movie Wag the Dog hit theaters, telling the story of a president of the United States who, caught making advances on an underaged girl, launches a war on Albania to distract the public.
The next day, a young staffer named Monica Lewinsky quit her job at the Pentagon.
Skipping over just a little bit of detail, on August 17, 1998, eight months later, President Bill Clinton testified before a grand jury inquiring into his affair with Lewinsky while she was a White House intern. That evening, Clinton spoke to the nation and admitted having “a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate.” Three days later, Clinton ordered airstrikes on terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.
The parallels between the film, suddenly imbued with an aura of prescience, and real-life did not go unnoticed. The movie has since become shorthand for presidents attempting diversionary tactics. Though Clinton’s administration saw the birth of the term, it was hardly a novel maneuver. In recent history alone, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush have all been accused of wagging the dog.
It’s possible that Donald Trump is now preparing to join the club. As my colleague Krishnadev Calamur writes, the president is expected on Wednesday to announce U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as well as vague future plans to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In making a splashy global move that panders to American domestic political dynamics, and in doing so just days after former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the special counsel investigating the administration, the president’s impending decision on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel looks a lot like his own wag-the-dog moment—though in other ways, it doesn’t fit the template.
Dog-wagging generally has three basic components: First, it comes at a time when the president is in political trouble. Second, it’s a foreign maneuver, since the commander in chief can most quickly act overseas, is least likely to generate blowback, and is most likely to produce an upsurge in patriotic feeling. Third, and relatedly, it should offer pure or nearly unalloyed political upside.
Consider a couple of the other alleged dog-waggings. On October 23, 1983, Hezbollah bombed a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American and 54 French peacekeepers. That followed an April attack on the U.S. Embassy that had killed 17 Americans and 46 others. Two days later, President Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada. It’s not that the attack didn’t fit U.S. government aims; it was in part a classic Cold War proxy battle against Communists. The overwhelming American firepower (almost 7,500 soldiers) seemed mismatched to the putative need (protecting American medical students on the island, the danger to whom was never really proven). Critics argued it was a cynical ploy to rally public opinion and bolster faith in the armed forces. If that’s true, it worked: The invasion was popular.
Like Reagan’s Cold War maneuvering, Clinton’s airstrikes were connected to global priorities. They were a response to al-Qaeda’s bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in early August. (A surprising number of these turn out to involve embassies in one way or another.) One attack was on an al-Qaeda camp in Khost, Afghanistan; the other was on a factory in Sudan that the U.S. said was creating the nerve agent VX. But it emerged that the factory was probably not connected to al-Qaeda or producing chemical weapons, and was producing pharmaceuticals. The timing of the attack, so soon after Clinton’s affair admission, and the apparent sloppiness in targeting the factory, both produced the impression that the attacks were as much diversionary as a serious response. (Some people believe the Clinton administration failed to deal with Osama bin Laden seriously enough ahead of the 9/11 attacks.) The still-recent movie provided critics with a perfect way to describe the situation.
Following 9/11, President George W. Bush went to war in Afghanistan, following in the path of the Khost airstrikes. Then, within months, the Bush administration started making noises about going to war in Iraq, too. That was immediately met by cries of dog-wagging from liberal pundits. The labeling was a bit loose: Bush wasn’t obviously trying to shift focus from domestic troubles (the president’s approval, while sliding from its astronomical post-9/11 peak, was still quite high) nor even from overseas problems: The war in Afghanistan had not yet bogged down as it would later, in part perhaps due to American focus shifting westward to Iraq.
But the ardor for a second war raised suspicion. As the saber-rattling got louder in spring 2002, The Nation warned that “Bush’s preoccupation with Iraq has permitted the tail to wag the dog.” In the fall, some Democrats warned that Bush would launch a wag-the-dog attack ahead of the midterm election. He didn’t, and as it turned out, he didn’t need to; the GOP bucked historical precedent and gained seats.
The war went forward anyway the following spring. And indeed, when the attacks began, and the U.S. military easily folded up Iraq’s armed forces, Bush’s approval spiked. The invaders didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction, though. By May, Paul Krugman was writing, “the administration has just derived considerable political advantage from a war waged on false premises. At best, that sets a very bad precedent. At worst. . . . ‘You want to win this election, you better change the subject. You wanna change this subject, you better have a war,’ explains Robert DeNiro’s political operative in ‘Wag the Dog.’ ‘It’s show business.’” Needless to say, the war didn’t turn out well for Bush, or the United States.
There’s one case of a dog-wagging that might never have actually happened. Four days after the Saturday Night Massacre, in which Nixon’s attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned rather than fire the Watergate special prosecutor, the Nixon administration suddenly put the U.S. armed forces on Defcon III, the highest level of readiness, in response to a Soviet message saying Moscow was considering military moves in the Middle East. “[Nixon’s] ordering of a global military alert on the night of October 24-25, 1973, reportedly in response to Soviet military movements further threatening the already unstable conditions in the Middle East, was viewed by many as self serving,” Stephen Stathis wrote a decade later.
Later scholarship has suggested that Nixon actually had nothing to do with the decision. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made the call after conferring with other Cabinet secretaries, because White House Chief of Staff Al Haig refused to rouse Nixon—perhaps because the president was drunk.
Trump is a teetotaler, so that’s no danger here, but the risk of misjudgment still seems high in the Jerusalem case. Consider the three criteria above: Does it come at a time of trouble for the president? Yes. He’s notched a couple of victories in the last week—the Supreme Court allowed his travel ban to go into effect, and the GOP tax bill to advance—but there is great peril, too. A government shutdown threatens, and the Flynn plea-deal is the biggest blow in a major investigation that threatens to paralyze or even end his presidency. Second, is it overseas? Yes. Third, does it offer a great political benefit? That’s where things get trickier.
Domestically, the benefits of Trump’s move are hazy. In Trump’s defense, the timing of this decision was not entirely his own. Congress passed a law in 1995 mandating moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but presidents have successively waived the transfer, because most of the world does not recognize its status as settled, and sees it as a matter to be decided in Israeli-Palestinian peace talk. Trump faced (and in fact had passed) the latest deadline when he made the decision. Yet by placing the embassy move on an indeterminate timeline, Trump could incur political costs while also raising doubts among those who see his choice as too fainthearted. Many others may react with indifference to general positivity. A substantial segment of the population will react furiously simply because they detest Trump.
The twin embassy and capital decisions will not offer Trump the shock-and-awe shot of testosterone and jingoism that a quick and easy war of choice does, and the group of people likely to be wildly excited about the move is limited, and with some exceptions, many of them will be within Trump’s small and shrinking but impassioned base. This is becoming a habit for the president: As his agenda founders and his popularity rating languishes in the basement, Trump has repeatedly made choices that are unlikely to expand his constituency but do appeal to his core supporters. (This is curious not least because these voters seem unlikely to abandon Trump in any circumstance.)
Along with the murky domestic benefits, the moves offers substantial global risk, inflaming adversaries and allies alike. Wag-the-dog moves don’t always earn allied approval—Britain and Canada were both upset about Grenada; the U.S. angered much of the world with the Iraq invasion, though at least the U.K. joined. Israel’s government is delighted about Trump’s move, but few other allies agree. In Europe, Germany and France both warned against it. Key American allies in the Middle East, from Jordan to Egypt to Saudi Arabia, objected. So did the increasingly distant regional American ally Turkey and global frenemy China.
There’s near-unanimity that the decision will bring a halt to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That process has seemed effectively moribund for some time, but Trump has kept claiming he will revive it, under the leadership of his beleaguered son-in-law Jared Kushner. “We will get it done,” Trump said in May. “It is something that I think is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
There are principled arguments for moving the embassy—after all, Congress has long since mandated it—and recognizing Jerusalem. On a briefing call Tuesday, a senior administration official said, “While President Trump recognizes that the status of Jerusalem is a highly sensitive issue, he does not think it will be resolved by ignoring the simple truth that Jerusalem is home to Israel’s legislature, its supreme court, the prime minister, and as such is the capital of Israel.”
It is of course true that Israel’s government resides in Jerusalem, but it is either disingenuous or foolish to claim that the U.S. government can acknowledge that without jeopardizing its role in brokering the peace process. The idea that Jerusalem is not effectively the capital of Israel is a classic diplomatic fiction. Everyone knows the Israeli government is based there, but pretends they do not for the sake of getting along. The current administration has shown a misunderstanding and disregard for these fictions since even before taking office, when President-elect Trump took a call from the president of Taiwan, creating a minor diplomatic dustup.
It’s not clear whether the Trump White House fails to understand the potential repercussions of the Jerusalem choices; understands the warnings, but regards them as overblown; or understands them but simply doesn’t care. Whichever it is, the timing and blithe dismissal of most allies force questions about whether the administration has ulterior domestic motives. A diversionary tactic often seems like a clever move in the moment, but as Bush could warn Trump, once you start wagging the dog, there’s a danger you end up getting bitten.