The Risks of Foreign Policy as Political Distraction

World leaders have often been tempted to divert attention from problems at home with projects abroad.

U.S. servicemen drive their armored vehicles during a joint military exercise on May 11, 2016.
U.S. servicemen drive their armored vehicles during a joint military exercise on May 11, 2016. (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

If you’re an embattled head of state, deflecting criticism through foreign adventure carries seductive appeal: Outside threats can cause people to pull together. As King Henry IV advises his son Hal, the future king, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2:

busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.

What better way to patch over domestic discord than to take on a common enemy?

In the real world, many historians interpret the Crimean War of 1853-1856 as an effort by French Emperor Louis Napoleon to buttress his support among French Catholics by fighting the Orthodox Russians. Karl Marx wrote that the emperor “has no alternative left but revolution at home or war abroad.” In 1857, President James Buchanan sent troops to reassert federal control over the Mormon regime in Utah, and in the words of one confidant, drown out “the pipings of Abolitionism” with the “almost universal excitement of an Anti-Mormon Crusade.” Shortly after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904,  the Russian minister of the interior said: “We need a little, victorious war to stem [the tide of] revolution.”

In the summer of 1998, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton confessed on television that his romantic relationship with a White House intern amounted to “a critical lapse in judgment … a personal failure.” Three days later, with his presidency hanging in the balance, the administration announced airstrikes against suspected terrorist sites in Sudan and Afghanistan, following the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Many observers claimed that Clinton had launched a classic diversionary war, or a use of force to sidetrack the media, whip up patriotic sentiment, and boost approval ratings. One journalist asked Secretary of Defense William Cohen if he had seen the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, in which the White House fabricates a war to distract attention from the president’s dalliance with a young girl. Cohen said the only goal of the strikes, “was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities.”

Today, some critics claim that Donald Trump will adopt a version of the Wag the Dog strategy, and launch an actual major conflict to deflect attention from the growing Russia scandal. In the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky outlined a number of dangerous scenarios for a “caged and cornered animal” like Trump, the first being that he “tries to start a war,” perhaps against North Korea. Distraction is indeed at the core of Trump’s foreign policy—but its role is far more subtle and broadly applied.

At present, the Trump administration finds itself caught in just the sort of storm of circumstance that could lure it into a diversionary foreign policy. Trump certainly has a motive to busy giddy minds, given the FBI’s investigation into collusion between his campaign and Russia, as well as approval ratings mired in the 30s. Because the president of the United States has a relatively free hand to use force, Trump also has the opportunity to divert attention. (The White House can’t impose its will on healthcare, but it can unilaterally launch airstrikes.)

In addition, Trump has an unparalleled capacity to dominate the news. He may be the most famous person ever to stroll the earth, or at least ride a golf cart. In January, by one account, Trump received more media coverage than the next 1,000-most famous people put together.

On top of this, distraction has been a staple of Trump’s political strategy since he declared his intention to run for president. When negative stories arise, his instinct is to seize the narrative with bold, even outlandish, claims—accusing Barack Obama of wiretapping the phones in Trump Tower, for example. If the diversion sets off another firestorm, the solution is further deflection, like a magician whose first trick goes up in smoke and then immediately begins performing a new illusion.

Trump has the flexibility to pursue a diversionary foreign policy because he lacks a clear diplomatic doctrine. In some policy areas, such trade and immigration, he has been consistent. But his positions on issues of war and peace have been highly mutable—he was for the Iraq war and then against it, pro-intervention in Libya before opposing this course of action, and largely indecipherable on Afghanistan. This gives him greater latitude to deploy smoke and mirrors when opportunities arise.

What are the core elements of a diversionary foreign policy? First of all, diplomatic moves should be attention-grabbing, symbolic, and popular, particularly among the base. The smartest diversionary actions also have some substantive merit, precisely so the true agenda is harder to spot. After all, giddy minds shouldn’t know they’ve been busied.

Ultimately, it’s not what the foreign policy does that matters, but what people think it does: the myths it creates, the stories it weaves, the narratives it reinforces. In Trump’s case, the tale is one of dark enemies and unscrupulous allies. His diplomacy seeks to establish a narrative of America First, a commitment to protect the U.S. homeland even if—or especially if—it irritates global elites.

Seen through this lens, much of Trump’s behavior seems designed to distract, however clumsily. Just consider the diversionary tweets. The president has repeatedly picked fights for his own political benefit by, for example, criticizing London mayor Sadiq Khan and taking his words out of context to make him appear weak on terrorism. Trump may see Khan, a foreign Muslim, as an ideal foil given the embrace of anti-Muslim attitudes among some in the Republican party.

And then there’s Trump’s diversionary staging. When he decided to withdraw America from the Paris climate deal, he could have given other nations maximum lead time to help them handle the fallout. Instead, he hyped up his forthcoming announcement, leading to frenzied debate about whether the United States would stay or go, as if his sole concern was to boost ratings on a reality television show.

But what about military force? To be clear, there is little cause to speculate that Trump plans to launch a full-scale war solely to distract attention. For one thing, as president, the worst possible time to start a major military campaign is when you’re deeply unpopular. And the political upside is shaky at best. Recent big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were politically damaging to George W. Bush. Even victory doesn’t guarantee a pay-off, as George H. W. Bush discovered when he won the 1991 Gulf War and then lost his bid for reelection in 1992.

A crisis may arise where there are real national-security rationales for fighting, along with potential domestic gains. Here, the payoff at home would likely enter Trump’s calculus, and even push him over the edge to fight, with the legitimate casus belli providing a shield of plausible deniability.

The most tempting use of force may be a seemingly manageable, but still dazzling, kinetic operation, like a missile strike or a raid to kill terrorist leaders. Another option would be to escalate a crisis where an easy win seems available: The key is to find the right enemy, one that’s both widely hated and too weak to fight back. After all, there’s a well-established “rally ‘round the flag” effect, where almost any military crisis temporarily juices the president’s approval ratings. In the wake of Clinton’s airstrikes in 1998, one poll found that 68 percent of Americans approved of his foreign policy. Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, “it was the right thing to do at the right time.”

In a hyper-partisan era like today, military operations offer one of the few avenues by which Trump could win backing from both sides of the aisle. In April, the White House launched airstrikes against the Syrian regime, following its use of chemical weapons, and won praise from Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump’s sudden decision to attack Damascus, after years of railing against such a move, struck many as suspicious, or, in Philip Gordon’s words, “yet another effort by the president to distract the media’s attention and change the subject from his problems at home.”

But diversionary uses of force are highly risky, and can just as easily exacerbate domestic problems. In 1982, the military regime in Argentina invaded the British Falkland Islands in a bid to overcome its deep unpopularity at home. U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig later wrote that there “was a widespread impression that the junta was creating a foreign distraction to give itself a respite from domestic economic problems, including severe inflation.” Crucially, the regime never intended to wage a war. Buenos Aires was certain that Britain wouldn’t fight for a few islands 8,000 miles away. But Margaret Thatcher was indeed ready for a fight; Argentina lost the war, and the junta was soon kicked out of office.

The benefits of a diversionary foreign policy rarely last. A president may win a news cycle or two, but then people move on. In 1998, Clinton received a short-term political boost from the airstrikes, but the House of Representatives still went ahead and voted to issue Articles of Impeachment. The strikes in Afghanistan failed to kill Osama Bin Laden, and may have brought the Taliban and al Qaeda closer together. The real victor was Wag the Dog’s production house, Baltimore Pictures: In the wake of the U.S. attack, video rentals of the movie skyrocketed.

In the end, diversion is a fool’s errand, offering fleeting political benefit and inviting very real risks. It’s no substitute for a foreign policy based on protecting national interests and values. Of course, the attraction of a risky wager depends on how weak a president is, domestically. If Trump is looking at near-inevitable removal from office, either at the ballot box or via impeachment, then gambling for resurrection through military action may be tempting even if the odds of success are low. He has nothing to lose—although American soldiers might.