- Gillian Farrell
Donald Trump orders missiles launched at Syria. Is it a Wag the Dog moment?
Since others were quick to use the phrase, and now I've used it, I'll allow myself to point out that I wrote the book and, immodestly, that it was listed as one of the 7 Best Modern Political Novels by the Christian Science Monitor, 5 Best Books on Public Relations by the Wall Street Journal, the 1,000 Great Books of the Millennium by Capital magazine, and the 15 Best American Political Novels by Men's Journal.
The essence of the novel was that war is a solution to domestic political problems. The essence of the film of the same title, starring Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman, was that even the illusion of war is a solution to domestic political problems.
It doesn't fix a bad economy, stop the revelations of corruption, cure the ineptitude, fix the screw-ups, or eliminate the sex scandals. But it sure as hell changes the politics.
After less than 100 days in office Trump was leading the short list for Worst President Ever! Then he launched the Tomahawks. The crew on Fox and Friends reacted with the glee of six-year-olds allowed to have ice cream for breakfast. That was to be expected. But the "mainstream" media ate it up as well. Fareed Zakaria who had called Trump a "bullsh*t artist" over and over again just a week earlier now gushed that "Donald Trump became president of the United States." USA Today printed "Trump hits high mark" and tweeted "It was a successful week for the president. Will his #winning ways continue?" The New York Times wrote, "an emotional President Trump took the greatest risk of his young presidency. It was an emotional act by a man suddenly aware that the world's problems were now his—and that turning away, to him, was not an option." Matt Lewis of the Daily Beast wrote "very different Donald Trump. More serious—and clearly moved emotionally. Frequently invoked the Almighty." An op-ed piece by Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal declared that "President Trump faced his first serious foreign-policy test this week...to the surprise and perhaps frustration of his critics, he passed with flying colors."
Wow! Even bow-wow!
Is it a real transformation?
The missiles did virtually no damage. They had no military consequences. The multi-sided Syrian civil wars, with their atrocities, civilian casualties, and horrors remain. If it escalates into a real attack on Assad, however righteous, it will still help ISIL, their main opponent, and the Kurds, which makes the Turks fearful and probably pushes them further toward autocracy.
Immediately before the missile launch, the investigation into the Trump team's connection to Russia and Russian meddling with the election dominated the news. The explosion of the missiles did, indeed, throw up a cloud of debris and obfuscation that obliterated them from view. But that dust will settle—and even if it doesn't—those connections are already the subject of formal investigations by the FBI, Congress, and probably others, which won't stop.
Trump's conflicts of interest are so numerous that it would take an article 10 times the length of this one to enumerate them. His divestitures are rather obvious fictions. His claim to have handed off control to his sons, or any other party, are the sort of casual falsehoods for which he has become famous. As Trump has proclaimed, loudly and publicly, the president is exempt from most conflict of interest laws and is proceeding as if he is totally shielded from any prosecution. However, his children are not exempt. His daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are now among his chief advisors. Technically, if they participate in discussions about areas where they have financial interests, those are criminal violations. These would include banking regulations, federal tax law, and trade with China, among other things. None of them, including Donald Trump, are exempt from the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars anyone in government from accepting "any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State." Many of Trump's other appointees already have histories of conflicts of interest. Granted, most of these won't become criminal prosecutions or causes for impeachment so long as Republicans hold an unassailable majority in both houses. But that might change. But even short of that, they will be subject matter for the media.
The great danger is the applause. Trump loves applause, responds to it, and once he gets it, goes back for encores.
Which he's already doing. Hence, the dropping of the largest non-nuclear bomb in history in Afghanistan. It will, of course, have zero effect on the war the US has been fighting there since 2001. But wow, bow-wow, it made for big TV! That was followed by bellicose threats against North Korea and sending an aircraft carrier accompanied by guided-missile cruisers and destroyers toward the Korean peninsula. (It later turned out that the warships were actually going in the other direction. Sailing on waves of ineptitude.)
Look forward to many, mini-mighty, military adventures—mostly theatrical, like firing voluntary contestants, except for the fact that real people will die—but some of them truly dangerous.
Will it bring him long term success?
No. That's my guess.
Wag the Dog, the novel, was about George H.W. Bush and Gulf War One. That war was impeccably produced. He had a Hitler guy for the villain. Bush was victorious. He pre-sold the foreign rights (this is true, he got various other countries to put up the money for it before a single shot was fired). And then—and then he failed to win re-election.
Why? The timing was off. The war 21 was months before the next election.
This attack on Syria is way too soon. Trump has a full three years and nine months—barring impeachment or death by obesity—for all the issues that already exist to grow worse and for him to make entirely new missteps.
So yes. It's a Wag the Dog moment. It's great theater. The audience loves it. But it's just reality TV. It can only run a few seasons. Then reality—actual jobs, actual economics, the impact of truly horrible policies—reasserts itself.