Wag the Dog

Wag the Dog (Directed by Barry Levinson, 1997)

Good afternoon. Today I ordered our armed forces to strike at
terrorist-related facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan because of
the imminent threat they presented to our national security.
President Bill Clinton, August 20, 1998

Wag the Dog, which was released eight months before this Clinton statement,is dark political satire in the grand tradition of The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin) and Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Story Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick). The idea for the script was triggered by Larry Beinhart’s American Hero, a zany book about how political Svengali Lee Atwater and President George H. W. Bush initiated the 1991 Gulf War as a launching pad for Bush’s reelection campaign.

Academy-Award-winning Director Barry Levinson (Good Morning, Vietnam, Tin Men, and Tootsie) engaged a stellar cast, including Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Willie Nelson, to make a film that explores the dark side of political cynicism and White House media manipulation that, at the time, seemed unbelievable to many Americans. It is not as especially good movie. What gives it a lasting significance is its focus on how the media seems docilely to accept bizarre White House spin and the implications of this sweetheart arrangement for American policy and for the American public.

In the film, less than two weeks before a president’s reelection bid, TV broadcast his involvement in a sex scandal in the White House. This is seen as potentially crippling to the president’s reelection bid. Spin doctor De Niro is summoned. His solution is to create a bigger story that would dominate the media until election day.

He then sets out to create a war. Albania is selected as the target. De Niro goes to a famous Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to script this “war.” Hoffman, who is an expert image maker, swiftly sees that he would be producing a “pageant, rather than a war.” He sees this as “politics at its finest.” Together with a studio and sound stage, Hoffman requires music for his pageant. Willie Nelson is drafted as singer of a series of instant patriotic songs. One minor problem is that it is hard to rhyme Albania. Another is that there is no corroborative evidence in Albania of a war.

A terrorist group is invented, with appropriate filmage. As this script starts to unravel, an American hero behind the Albanian front lines is created. The media provides fulsome coverage of these fast-changing pageant scenes. Eventually the ‘American hero’ has to be ‘removed,’ after he plays his part. Ultimately, to assure that this fraudulent pageant would not unravel prior to the president’s reelection, producer Hoffman also becomes extraneous. Meanwhile, Willie Nelson is struggling to sing patriot songs that are hastily created to match the rapidly-changing scenario. Good Old Shoe, We Guard Our American Borders, and The Men of the 303 tug at the heart strings of red-blooded Americans who are riveted by this make-believe war.

This beguiling piece of fiction, which was nominated for numerous awards, assumes a topical dimension with the headlining of the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. At the height of Zippergate, President Clinton announced the U. S. attacks on “terrorist-related facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan.” Editorials and cartoonists had a field day in linking Wag the Dog to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
Some cartoon captions included:

There is no definitive evidence that the Clinton-ordered air strikes were primarily intended to divert attention from his domestic political situation. Nonetheless, it is instructive to assess the scenario of the bombing of an ‘Osama-bin-Laden-associated
nerve gas factory’ in the Sudan.

The president, on August 20, 1998 stated that “Our forces also attacked a factory in Sudan associated with the bin Laden [terrorist] network. The [Shifa] factory was involved in the production of materials for chemical weapons.” Initially, the media accepted this statement as fact. In an August 22nd Gallup Poll, Clinton’s action was applauded by two thirds of the respondents.

The facts, as they gradually emerged, tell a far different story. Key evidence for this ‘nerve gas’ accusation was a soil sample taken in December, 1997 across an access road about 60 feet from the factory.. A private lab (why tests were not conducted in a federal facility is unclear) concluded that this indicated the presence of a critical component in the making of nerve gas. According to less-than-reliable clandestine sources (the American Embassy in Khartoum was closed in January, 1996), this factory was under tight security and, thus, was not available for personal inspection.

Scientist observed that this sample may well have been contaminated by sloppy collection procedures. Moreover, scientists questioned whether this component was related to any ‘nerve gas’ process.

The purported ‘nerve gas’ factory had, with private U. S. engineering assistance, been constructed as a pharmaceutical plant supplying about half of the Sudan’s medical needs. On August 26, 1998 a British technician, who had been a technical supervisor in the 1992-1996 construction of this factory, said that he had gone into every corner of the plant and that there was no ‘high security.’

This “secret plant” was officially opened by the British ambassador. A World Health Organization inspected the plant in December, 1997. Other recent visitors included an American delegation, which had inspected this medical facility.

There had been serious doubts within the U. S. government about this purported ‘nerve gas’ facility. At the State Department, analysts in the office of Intelligence & Research published a paper that challenged the alleged nature of this facility. Major doubts were also raised by the head of the CIA Directorate of Operations, the CIA African division chief, and the chief of CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. CIA “Slam Dunk” Tenet, though he stated that the link between bin Laden and the factory could only be drawn by inference, expressed greater certainty of the plant’s involvement with chemical weapons.

A small group of high-ranking U. S. officials, without drawing on intelligence and chemical war experts, made the final determination to target this Sudanese plant. Soon thereafter, the plant’s owner was subjected to legal action and his bank accounts were blocked. The U. S. government quietly dropped its case in July 1999.

The parallels between the Sudanese ‘nerve gas’ facility and the Weapons of Mass Destruction high-level deceptions prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom are striking. Perhaps most disturbing was that the media initially overwhelming accepted and trumpeted official U. S. government statements without rigorous investigative reporting.

After Wag the Dog, but before 9/11, this issue of media manipulation was discussed in a trailer to the film. Barry Levinson expressed grave concern that, increasingly, what we are seeing is fabricated. As he phrased it, “If seeing is no longer believing,” how can the public distinguish between fact and fiction? A journalist who had worked for Edward R. Murrow described the Six O’clock News as the National Enquirer.

Tom Brokaw observed that, from the time of William Hearst, the line between news and entertainment has been blurred. Former Clinton White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said that impressions are imbedded in people’s minds very quickly. In the ‘political spin game,’ “Once it is out, you can’t bring it back.”

Buying the War, a recent Bill Moyer’s special, is a stinging indictment of how the media, almost without exception, bought the White House spin on Weapons of Mass Destruction, the al Qaeda link with Saddam Hussein, and other specious evidence presented by Vice President Cheney, Defense Department official Douglas Feith and others. How can we be certain that a similar spin is not being attempted on the current situation in Iraq?

The film’s title comes from the joke: "Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail was smarter, the tail would wag the dog." Related to Wag the Dog, the dog seems to be the president (who we never see) and the tail represents his PR assistants, who immediately assume responsibility for damage control. The expression "the tail wagging the dog" refers to any situation where something of greater significance is driven by something lesser.

Wag the Dog seems far-less-absurd than when it was first released. Recent events reinforce my distrust of both government information and the credibility of the principal media sources. Our country as a whole is the victim of this lack of government-media integrity.

Perhaps it is time for Mr. Levinson to consider a Wag the Dog sequel. I suggest several possible story lines:

Writers of fiction would be hard pressed to top some of scenarios that have been spun in White House “pageants.” Who, for example, could have imagined a Watergate script in which a White House official delivered $75,000 in a garbage bag to a gum shoe awaiting him on a park bench or that Gordon Liddy, in a meeting with former Attorney General John Mitchell, proposed ‘taking out’ those who opposed the president? When The Washington Post doggedly pursued a Watergate story that other papers ignored, Mr. Mitchell threatened to put Post CEO Graham’s “tits in a wringer.”

As the cartoonist wrote in 1998, there may not be much difference between watching Wag The Dog and viewing the evening news.

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