Was Trump ‘wagging the dog’ with strikes in Syria?

It looks like a case of life imitating cinema.

Demonstration outside the US embassy in Rome, Italy against the bombings in Syria carried out by the United States, Britain and France.
Demonstration outside the US embassy in Rome, Italy against the bombings in Syria carried out by the United States, Britain and France.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, telling his top military aides that America’s strategic goals no longer warranted U.S. military involvement there.

Just days later, the US military was raining bombs down in the capital city Damascus, in what was described as a vital military operation. The strikes late Friday — early Saturday Syrian time — were carried out in coordination with allies Britain and France.

So, what explains the administration’s sudden shift to once again viewing Syria as a vital American security concern?

Trump over the past week pointed to the April 7 chemical weapons attack on civilians as the main impetus for the American military response.

But the last several days have also seen Trump’s domestic problems multiply as the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and that country’s 2016 election interference envelopes his close aides.


That, in the minds of some, has raised the specter of a political calculus — an effort to “wag to dog” — in the Syria operation.

The expression “wag the dog” means to create a crisis in order to divert attention from a more pressing or perilous scandal. It came into popular parlance as the administration of Bill Clinton struggled to respond to the crisis over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The 1997 film Wag the Dog was released as controversy threatened to engulf Clinton’s presidency. The dark comedy, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, dealt with the plot hatched by a U.S. president and his top adviser to concoct a military intervention in Albania to distract public’s attention from a torrid sex scandal.

Around the same time, Clinton launched a military operation targeting Al-Qaeda fighters, bombing a chemical plant in Sudan, among other targets. It was never definitively determined that Clinton was in fact trying to draw attention away from his troubles, but suspicions to that effect have swirled ever since, and the expression “wag the dog” has become part of American political lexicon.

Was Trump’s order to launch strikes taken from the Wag the Dog playbook? At this stage, it’s impossible to say with any certainty. But over the past week, the president has seen his personal “attorney” and close confidant Michael Cohen drawn into the scandal. The FBI raided Cohen’s home, office, and hotel room, as the Mueller investigation draws ever closer to the president.


MSNBC television anchor Rachel Maddow raised the prospect of Trump using the bombing to detract from the Russia scandal on her program late Friday, which aired shortly after the bombing had commenced.

“There are national security consequences to having a presidency that is as chaotic as Mr. Trump’s presidency — a presidency that is as consumed by scandal and criminal intrigue as his presidency is. It has national security consequence,” she said on her Rachel Maddow Show program.

“If the president of the United States is believed to have issued the order to launch this strike tonight, even in part because people think he wanted to distract from a catastrophic domestic scandal that is blowing up at home at the same time, the perception that the president may have ordered these strikes in part because of scandal will affect the impact and the effectiveness of these military strikes — unavoidably,” she Maddow said. “Even if the tail is not wagging the dog.”

A guest on her show, retired military Col. Jack Jacobs, when asked about the overlap in timing between the Russia probe and the Syria bombing. “I don’t believe in coincidences … You can’t discount the wag the dog factor in this particular case any more than you can discount any other factor,” he said.


And an outspoken congressional critic of Trump’s didn’t mince words either in accusing Trump of using the strikes to deflect from widening scandals at home.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) said the “desperate” US president showed with the Syria bombing that he is “not above using war” to try to detract from the Russia probe.