Wagging the Dog*

Wagging the Dog

“Wagging the dog” is a synonym for a magician’s trick of focusing attention on a figurative “shiny object” to distract audiences from the magician’s slight-of-hand. “Wagging the dog” in a geopolitical context refers to a leader diverting the public’s attention from something of importance to something of lesser importance. A useful example is hypothesized in the 1997 black comedy Wag the Dog, in which a U.S. President becomes involved in a sex scandal during his reelection campaign and distracts the voting public by fabricating a war (“Why does the dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog”).

Sometimes fiction can morph into reality.

Sometimes wars can fabricate themselves.

Today’s world is awash in hot spots where challenged leaders may decide to distract … and where distractions might become realities.

Iran and its ruling clerics have been boxed into a corner by America’s sanctions … and that corner is shrinking. Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist credited with authoring the Art of War, counseled that a good military leader should always leave his enemy a way out. The U.S. has not left Iran’s clerics a way out. They cannot capitulate without a loss of face power. Their situation creates the potential for hasty, poorly-thought-out actions. Evidence of the clerics’ stress is found in their strained restrained response to America’s recently-increased sanctions: sabotage that damaged two Saudi oil tankers, an Emirati one and a Norwegian one in the UAE; Houthi drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities; and a Katyusha rocket that landed near the U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad … making the point that Iranian-directed terrorism can damage Western interests across a broad front without crossing a line that would draw America into a military conflict. Iran raised the temperature further when it announced a quadrupling of its nuclear enrichment capacity. Although more provocative, that action does not yet justify military retaliation. Building nuclear weapons, on the other hand …. All were figurative shots-across-the-bow to signal a potential for regional escalation, and America responded disproportionately in kind, increasing its preparations for war battle-readiness by sending an aircraft carrier strike force, additional troops and B-52 bombers to the region. In an ominous sign, although war is not what either sides’ leaders want, America’s military-industrial complex is preparing for war.

Unless Iran is able to avoid American sanctions by means of surreptitious arrangements with China or Russia other countries, its clerical leaders may make a decision similar to the fatal one made by Saddam Hussein.

Although Iran’s reactions to-date have involved only minor acts of sabotage, its surrogates could cause greater damage, from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Gaza’s Hamas, Yemen’s Houthis, Shiite militias in Iraq, allies in Libya and Sub-Saharan Africa, and cells in various Western countries. Iran also has the capability to place mines in the Strait of Hormuz should it (or its Revolutionary Guards) decide to disrupt global energy supplies. More than 20{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} of the world’s crude oil flows through the Strait. As Iran’s economy sinks – it is facing a projected 6{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} GDP decline in 2019 – a random act by a single individual or group could ignite a spiraling of events in much the way that events in 1914 led to WWI. There are any number of escalations that might cause Iran or the U.S. to inadvertently blunder into war … or be blundered into war by the designs mistakes of underlings. Moreover, with elections in both countries scheduled for 2020, wagging the dog will gain political appeal for leaders clerics in Iran and elsewhere should tensions escalate.

Although Iran presents the most apparent “tail” danger, it is far from the only hot spot. America’s actions have raised the temperature in other parts of the world as well.

Increasing American tariffs on Chinese products and the blacklisting of Chinese companies from doing business with the West (starting with Huawei Technologies) have presented China and its President, Xi Jinping, with a series of problems. America’s actions are likely to accelerate inflation in China and may significantly adversely impact China’s GDP. They come at a time when China is facing rapidly-expanding debt and an already weakening economy. The trade war, however, is only one of several conflict areas between the U.S. and China. Naval and air forces of both nations have frequent encounters in the Western Pacific as the U.S. has sought to enforce international rights of navigation and airspace in the East and South China Seas in direct opposition to China’s territorial claims to Taiwan and disputed islands in the region. Those encounters increase the risk of incidents that one country or the other could interpret as military hostility. Experts believe that China’s continued focus on building its naval forces may have given it superiority in its near offshore waters, a provocation in itself. Xi’s goal is for China’s navy by 2030 to become a global force that can project China’s military power and protect its vast seaborne trade and expanding international interests – its Belt and Road Initiative – another sign that China’s rising power will become an increasing threat to the U.S. and its interests.

Since Xi became President in 2012, China has shifted from one-party rule to one-man rule. Xi has crushed internal opposition, jailed and executed opponents, restricted speech and association, deployed a mass surveillance system using DNA, voice, and biometrics, developed a nationwide reward and punishment structure known as the “social credit system,” and tightened Communist Party control over the internet, mass media and academia. Dictator Xi is not about to back down. He has the support of the Party and the Chinese people. He knows that China cannot be defeated in an economic or military encounter. The U.S. trade war and American military provocations will only harden his resolve … and the resolve of Chinese citizens by further inflaming Chinese nationalism amid reminders of the demeaning of China in the 19th Century Opium Wars and the media’s view that the West, and especially America (“America First”), is determined to keep China down. During a recent trip to the southern province of Jiangxi, a cradle of the Communist revolution, Xi urged people to learn lessons from the hardships of the past. “Today, on the new Long March, we must overcome various major risks and challenges from home and abroad,” referring to the 1934-36 journey of the Communist Party to a remote rural base where it re-grouped and took control of mainland China in 1949. And just this week, the People’s Daily, China’s Communist Party mouthpiece, warned: “We advise the U.S. side not to underestimate the Chinese side’s ability to safeguard its development rights and interests. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!” The phrase “Don’t say we didn’t warn you” was used only two other times by the People’s Daily ÔÇö in 1962 preceding China’s border war with India and before the 1979 China-Vietnam War.

Xi will not shrink from confrontation to counter American threats … whether in withholding strategic materials like rare earths (which are critical components in mobile phones, electric vehicles and precision weapons) or even in engaging in limited military confrontations, steps that the Chinese people would appreciate. He may reckon that America would back down since President Trump has repeatedly emphasized an isolationist world view and an aversion to committing American forces or engaging in foreign incursions. After all, it takes only one tail to wag a dog.

Turkey and its “caliph in waiting,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have a problem that a bit of tail-wagging might mitigate. Turkey is in recession with its economy and currency showing no sign of recovery. Erdogan is facing increasing electoral challenges as well as increasing Kurdish military resistance and an ongoing crisis in adjoining Syria. America is likely to levy economic sanctions against Turkey due to its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system (see “More Turkey Anyone” in the May 29th TLR). A timely escalation might inflame nationalism … increasing Erdogan’s electoral chances.

Russia and Vladimir Putin have a problem as well. Average Russians are poorer today than they were five years ago, before imposition of American sanctions. Although Russia’s economy once again is growing … thanks to increases in crude oil prices …, should those prices break, President Putin may have reason once again to resort to military action to distract his subjects, as he did in the past with Ukraine, Crimea, and Georgia.

There is also North Korea and Venezuela. Senator Lindsay Graham in a May 22nd editorial in the Wall Street Journal urged President Trump to “Match Words with Action in Venezuela.” He advocates an ultimatum to Cuba followed by … action. As the 2020 Presidential election approaches, President Trump may become more open to increasing nationalism an activist a less isolationist foreign policy, especially if he follows the advice of “war monger” John Bolton, his National Security Advisor.

Finally (from a good friend) — How the Fight Started (continued from the May 22nd TLR):

My wife sat down next to me as I was flipping channels. She asked, “What’s on TV?” I said, “Dust.” And then the fight started….

Saturday morning I got up early, quietly dressed, made my lunch, and slipped quietly into the garage. I hooked the boat up to the van and proceeded to back out into a torrential downpour. The wind was blowing 50mph, so I pulled back into the garage, turned on the radio, and discovered that the weather would be bad all day. I went back into the house, quietly undressed, and slipped back into bed. I cuddled up to my wife’s back; now with a different anticipation, and whispered, “The weather out there is terrible.” My loving wife of 5 years replied, “And can you believe my stupid husband is out fishing in that?” And that’s how the fight started….

My wife was hinting about what she wanted for our upcoming anniversary. She said, “I want something shiny that goes from 0 to 150 in about 3 seconds.” I bought her a bathroom scale. And then the fight started….

After retiring, I went to the Social Security office to apply for Social Security. The woman behind the counter asked me for my driver’s License to verify my age. I looked in my pockets and realized I had left my wallet at home. I told the woman that I was very sorry, but I would have to go home and come back later. The woman said, “Unbutton your shirt.” So I opened my shirt revealing my curly silver hair. She said, “That silver hair on your chest is proof enough for me” and she processed my Social Security application. When I got home, I excitedly told my wife about my experience at the Social Security office. She said, “You should have dropped your pants. You might have gotten disability too.” And that’s when the fight started….

My wife was standing nude, looking in the bedroom mirror. She was not happy with what she saw and said to me, “I feel horrible. I look old, fat and ugly. I really need you to pay me a compliment.” I replied, “Your eyesight’s damn near perfect.” And then the fight started….

I rear-ended a car this morning…the start of a REALLY bad day! The driver got out of the other car, and he was a DWARF!! He looked up at me and said “I am NOT Happy!” So I said, “Well, which one ARE you then?” That’s how the fight started….

*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

1 Comment
  • Dennis Draizin
    Posted at 11:54h, 08 June

    ÔÇ£Wagging the dogÔÇØ. You correctly point out our difficult confrontations with so many bad actors. Are we also a bad actor? It depends upon ones perspective.. What to do about them. I would guess that patience and going slow might be the most prudent course of action. The difficulty is finding a way to give our adversaries ÔÇ£a way outÔÇØ without appeasement. The South China Sea is an international waterway. A nuclear armed Iran, not a great outcome. A rich Russia with a growing economy, a much safer outcome. War, the most horrific outcom.

    Avoiding starting the fight goes a long way to preventing the beginning of a ÔÇ£REALLY bad dayÔÇØ. Enjoyed the funny vignettes.

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