Trump’s ‘Wag the Dog’ Moment

We were in the White House when President Bill Clinton was wrongly accused of using military power to aid his own political fortunes. Here’s why this time is different.

By Steven Simon, professor in the practice of international relations at Colby College. He served on the NSC staff in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and Daniel Benjamin
U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the podium after making a statement on Iran at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 3.
U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the podium after making a statement on Iran at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 3. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Since the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani, American analysts have focused on how Iran might react and how little thought U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have devoted to the consequences of his extraordinary action. Some, like David Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Iraq and CIA director, have attempted to put the event in a strategic framework, casting the strike as an effort to restore a measure of U.S. deterrence in the region, even while raising the question whether killing Suleimani was the right way to do it.

The fascination with such topics—particularly with the question of how Iran will respond to the death of its most revered military man—is understandable. But it is misplaced. What the nation needs to know most urgently is whether there was any substantive intelligence indicating that Suleimani was orchestrating a major military or terrorist campaign against the United States. As former policymakers with extensive experience in countering Iran, we are struck by statements from within the administration suggesting that there was none. The natural conclusion is that, with this attack, Trump used the unparalleled power of his office to authorize this strike to distract Americans from his impeachment. In doing so, he disregarded the profound dangers that killing Suleimani would engender and subordinated the safety of Americans to his own private political fortunes.

The charge that a president “wagged the dog” is not one anyone should make lightly. We know this as well as anyone: Both of us were working on counterterrorism in the White House in 1998, when this charge was most famously leveled at our boss, President Bill Clinton. The phrase, derived from the Robert De Niro-Dustin Hoffman movie of the previous year, was instantly affixed to Clinton after he ordered cruise missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan on Aug. 20, 1998, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and less than two weeks after terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

As National Security Council staffers during the impeachment of Clinton, we lived a surreal existence. We spent our days in the Old Executive Office Building immersed in the intelligence on a little-known terrorist figure—Osama bin Laden—and his efforts to procure chemical and nuclear weapons for use against the United States. And when we crossed West Executive Avenue for meetings with the national security advisor, we were suddenly confronted with the carnival of “Monica Beach,” the large swath of the White House front lawn that had been given to broadcast journalists who needed a place to report on location. The juxtaposition was mind-bending, and there was no reconciling the national obsession with the president’s sex life and an urgent national security threat.

A refusal among the press and the political commentariat to believe that bin Laden, the architect of the East Africa bombings, might represent a major danger to Americans was palpable. It was tied to the certainty that Clinton was only up to shenanigans to distract the nation when he ordered the cruise strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan. In the 48 hours after those attacks, NBC broadcast clips from the movie Wag the Dog at least six times, while the cast of CNN’s Crossfire joined the satirist Mark Russell in singing a ditty that began: “If a woman gives you trouble, or maybe two or three … go to war. It’s been done before. It’s ‘Wag the Dog.’”

Perhaps because of the lingering embarrassment of that episode, analysts are currently disinclined to accuse Trump of wagging the dog.

Perhaps because of the lingering embarrassment of that episode, which eroded Clinton’s effort to mount a military campaign to destroy al Qaeda in Afghanistan, analysts are currently disinclined to accuse Trump of wagging the dog. One of the few times the subject has come up, on Jan. 4, the presidential historian Douglas Brinkley brushed aside a question from CNN anchor Bianna Golodryga by saying, “You can see why the comparisons are being made. But I don’t believe Donald Trump is wagging the dog any more than I believe Bill Clinton did. They’re just trying to do a target of opportunity, at this moment in time.”

But the fact that one president was wrongly accused of misusing the military to achieve a political end does not mean that such a misdeed cannot happen. Suleimani was not a target of opportunity. He was by no means an elusive figure like Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or bin Laden. Western intelligence services knew where he was most days of the year, and he was a frequent visitor to Baghdad. Nor, for that matter, is there any serious argument that Suleimani’s removal from the scene would yield the United States any substantive security benefits or geopolitical advantages. Reuters has reported that Suleimani was planning his own “Wag the Dog”-style offensive against the United States in Iraq to distract Iraqis from protesting against their government’s incompetence and Iran’s influence in Iraq. His hope, according to the report, was to trigger a U.S. response that would displace popular anger onto Washington. If true, then Trump dutifully played into Suleimani’s hands and continues to do so, granting the Iranian general a string of posthumous victories.

The costs of this action are mounting faster than they can be tallied. The Iraqi parliament, led by a historically America-friendly prime minister, has voted to expel U.S. forces from Iraq. If carried out, such a move will mark an end to 16 years in which the United States has labored mightily to overcome the catastrophic blunder of the 2003 invasion, put Iraq on a stable footing as an American partner in the region, and, having opened the door to Iraq for Iran, compete with Tehran for Baghdad’s affections. The strike appears already to have undermined, perhaps fatally, the coalition fighting the Islamic State, with United States and its Western partners canceling operations and confining their troops to base for protection.

Adding to the wreckage, Iran has also announced that it will suspend compliance of most of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. Iran had largely upheld its part of the deal for 20 months despite its dissatisfaction at the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement and imposition of wide-ranging economic sanctions. Other possible fallout from Suleimani’s assassination includes stepped-up cooperation between Iran and the Taliban, which will deepen the United States’ already considerable woes in Afghanistan. All of these consequences were absolutely foreseeable.

Foreign policy is treated as a tremendously complex subject, and often it is. But sometimes, it is also starkly simple. There will be no net benefit from Suleimani’s demise—regardless of how long his trail of bloodshed and mayhem—certainly not for U.S. service members or civilians working in the broader Middle East and certainly not for U.S. national security. The organization he led, Iran’s elite Quds Force, is not a small terrorist group that will collapse after the removal of its leader; it is a large bureaucracy that will keep conducting its dangerous business. In any serious accounting, the only plus sign is in the political column for Trump, who has changed the subject from his own impeachment to a national security crisis.

Put another way, as recently as last year’s United Nations General Assembly, Trump essentially begged Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to take his phone call. That call was aimed at kicking off one of Trump’s vaunted deals, and he continued to pursue it while turning a blind eye to Iranian attacks on tankers near the Strait of Hormuz as well as audacious drone strikes on Saudi oil production facilities. What changed between then and the strike that killed Suleimani? For one thing, impeachment. The contention that Tehran’s posture toward the United States was suddenly and ineluctably dangerous does not pass the straight face test, and if Trump twisted intelligence to a gain political edge, that would be yet one more impeachable offense.

For now, the legitimate need for secrecy puts the executive branch and the public at mutual disadvantage. In 1998, those inside the administration knew that the evidence of chemical weapons production at a facility in Khartoum, Sudan, was compelling, as was intelligence regarding bin Laden’s links to the plant. But the sources and methods that yielded the information had to be kept secret. Perhaps the same constraints apply now.

On Jan. 8, Congress is scheduled to hear a briefing from the administration on the strike. But U.S. lawmakers must not allow that to be the end of the story. Rather, they must insist on seeing all the relevant intelligence that suggests that there was a threat of imminent action by Iran against U.S. interests. And that intelligence must be viewed in light of the fact that Suleimani had been planning contingencies for hitting the United States for decades—plans that remained on the shelf. The president needs to prove that something had genuinely changed. In past cases like this one, including the August 1998 strikes, the executive branch made relevant intelligence available. Accepting any less now would be an abrogation of public trust.

Congress must also review the deliberations that led to the decision to strike. It must not sit back while the administration asserts automatic congressional approval for Suleimani’s assassination under either the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force or the 2002 version cited on Jan. 3 by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. The 2001 legislation was explicitly geared to the groups or individuals who carried out the 9/11 attacks, and the 2002 follow-on specifically authorized the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which took place in 2003, nearly 17 years ago.

Nor should Congress let the administration get away with a classified War Powers filing—the documentary explanation regarding the use of force required under the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which was enacted with the specific purpose of preventing any president from dragging the country into a war without congressional consent. The administration needs to make publicly clear whether there was an intelligence assessment regarding the likely consequences of the strike. One should have been an essential part of the preparation, but there has not even been a rumor that such an exercise was conducted. The lack of one would be another indication that the attack was not about security circumstances in the region but rather political circumstances at home.

Congress’s powers in matters of war and peace have been eroding for decades and especially rapidly since 9/11. But even supporters of a strong executive—and we count ourselves in that group—must acknowledge that a president who would abuse his power to advance his personal interests must be prevented from doing so by the institutional checks created by the framers of the Constitution. American lives have been put in jeopardy, and U.S. national security has been imperiled. If the killing of Suleimani was motivated by Trump’s personal political interests, he should be sanctioned just as he has been for corrupting the United States’ policy toward Ukraine.

Steven Simon is professor in the practice of international relations at Colby College. He served at the State Department and as National Security Council staff and is co-author of The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East. His new book, The Long Goodbye: The United States and the Middle East From the Islamic Revolution to the Arab Spring, is forthcoming.

Daniel Benjamin is director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. He served from 2009 to 2012 as ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department. During more than five years on the National Security Council staff in the 1990s, Benjamin served as a foreign policy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and director for transnational threats. Twitter: @Benjamin05055