Wag the dog: Crisis scenarios for Bush
By Michael T Klare
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
media 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 a 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
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
President George W 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 Central Intelligence Agency 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
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 Iran, nor would she
acknowledge any presidential obligation to consult Congress before engaging in
such an action.
Asked by Senator Paul Sarbanes 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
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 jihadis into Iraq.
The issue of Syrian involvement in Hariri's assassination arose immediately
following the February 14 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 US and Great Britain persuaded the UN 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 31 and 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 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. 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 Bush at an October 1 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 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 US 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 jihadis 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
"US 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 Assad". Attacks of this type could be mounted at any time, and
should be considered highly likely if Damascus rebuffs UN efforts to compel
testimony by its senior officials or if conditions worsen in Iraq (as is
The standoff between the US 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 UN 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, Mahmud 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
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
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 that 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 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
The Bush administration has already made up its mind on this subject. "Iran
[has] concealed a large-scale, covert nuclear weapons program for over 18
years," John Bolton, then under secretary of state and now UN ambassador),
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
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 Tehran 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 UN Security
Council for possible actions, which could include the imposition of economic
and other sanctions.
At a meeting on September 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. 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 UN, 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
Under such circumstances, a military strike against nuclear facilities in Iran
has to be considered a genuine possibility. After all, Bush has already
declared that the US 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 US 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 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 US and its allies. Both sides
complied with some aspects of the agreement but balked at others. The Bill
Clinton administration was well on its way toward resolving these
inconsistencies when 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 US, 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
The US 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 US
has recently bolstered its military capabilities in the area - sending 15 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 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.