In 1998, three days after President Bill Clinton apologized to America for lying about his frolicking with Monica Lewinsky, he ordered military strikes on terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan. Called Operation Infinite Reach, they were described as retaliation for the bombings of the Kenya-Tanzania American embassies. They were widely regarded as ineffectual, and mocked for merely making empty tents shake in a nearly-abandoned camp in Afghanistan and blowing up a Sudanese aspirin factory.
In those days, the press wasn’t in the absolute thrall of the Democrats, and when then-Defense Secretary William Cohen was briefing reporters, one asked if the president’s actions resembled those depicted in the 1997 comedy film “Wag the Dog.” In that film, a fictional White House ensnared in a sex scandal gins up a war to deflect outrage at a disgraced president with patriotic war fervor. Cohen insisted that the Clinton White House would never do anything like that. After President Donald Trump ordered the attack that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Democrats and the media deployed the doggy trope to disparage Trump. Did it apply?
Like Clinton, Trump is embroiled in impeachment, but where Clinton committed offenses worthy of that procedure—perjury in a sexual harassment case and a cover-up that involved getting others to lie—the charges against Trump are thin. Their concoction was partisan and brazenly unfair. Clinton squeaked out of his dilemma because his party minimized his perjury since it was “just about sex” and “everybody,” they insisted, “lies about sex.” You were a prudish hypocrite if you thought the governor of Arkansas should keep his pants above his ankles around non-consenting female state workers, and if he then makes it to the White House, that he should keep them elevated while there, too, even if an underling was receptive. Trump’s defense will be about the Constitutional authority given to the president to investigate corruption by high officials in foreign parts, the independence of the executive branch, and the unfairness of the Democratic impeachment clown show. The composition of the U.S. Senate makes it unlikely Trump will be forced from office and his poll numbers are sound.
So it wasn’t necessary for Trump to wag the dog. But did someone else need to do so?
Immediately after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kurds living in its territory rebelled and there were uprisings in Khuzestan, Sistan, and Baluchestan. These were ruthlessly squashed. To forestall other rebellions, a purge was ordered by Ayatollah Khomeini. Ever since, dissent has continued to be severely punished with the bogeymen of America and Israel used to justify the butchery. The resulting death count has reached the tens of thousands but despite repression, dissent continues to erupt.
In 2009, unhappiness with a disputed election produced the Iranian Green Movement. It was brutally suppressed. Anti-government demonstrations erupted again in 2017 and 2018. They, too, were put down with violence. In 2019, there were protests when the Iranian government announced a 300 percent increase in fuel prices, a consequence of economic pressures created by sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration. The Iranian government, which derives considerable revenue from fuel sales, needs the cash to keep going and can’t easily back down.
The New York Times reported that in December, Iran experienced the deadliest unrest since the Islamic Revolution with a corresponding violent government response. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Mahshahr, for example, reportedly trapped and massacred about 100 demonstrators in a swamp. Some estimates put the death count in the latest repression of dissent across Iran at 1,500.
Perhaps Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei decided to “wag the dog” by escalating tensions with the United States to galvanize Iranian patriotic support for his regime. Perhaps he was also banking on persuading Trump, like his predecessor President Barack Obama, to negotiate and end sanctions. If not, some humiliating incident, like the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis or the 2012 Benghazi attack, might politically injure Trump, as those incidents had respectively damaged President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Iranians could expect any Democrat who might in consequence deny Trump a second term would emulate Obama’s appeasing approach to Iran and end sanctions. Even if that didn’t happen, successful attacks would increase Iran’s influence in the Middle East and humiliate the United States.
The cost Iran’s leadership might have to pay for the escalated terrorist actions, if the past were a predictor, would be small. Since 1979, Iran has been responsible for the terror deaths of thousands with little blowback reaching those at the top. They have remained untouched, while Iran’s citizens have suffered under sanctions and the proxies Iran uses to conduct attacks have done the dying.
In May and June, tankers registered with Saudi Arabia, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates were attacked in Emirati waters and Japanese and Norwegiean-owned tankers were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz. There was little doubt Iran was behind the incidents.
Also in June, Iran shot down an American drone in international air space. President Trump nearly retaliated but held back. In September, drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities knocked out a significant portion of that country’s oil supply, rattling the world’s oil markets. The weapons used and their flight patterns indicated the attack had been launched by Iran.
In Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a militia backed by Iran, began harassing coalition troops working with America in Iraq. In December, a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base killed an American civilian contractor and wounded several American and Iraqi service members. President Trump ordered airstrikes against Hezbollah camps in Iraq and Syria in response. A reported 25 members of Kataeb Hezbollah, a part of PMF, were killed.
In response to Trump’s airstrikes, the PMF staged a riotous siege of the American embassy in Baghdad. They succeeded in destroying parts of the facility but the embassy’s Marines held off the militia which pulled back after two days. If they had overrun the embassy, a reprise of the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis might have occurred. When Trump warned Iran that it would pay a price for attacking Americans, Khamenei tweeted a taunt in response: “You can’t do anything.” He was confident that if there were a response, it would only affect Iranian proxies or Iranians of no consequence.
Trump answered Khamenei’s taunt by killing Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force and the man responsible for their extraterritorial military and clandestine operations. Soleimani was said to be the number-two man in Iran’s dictatorship and a close associate of Khamenei. He was instrumental in Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon, in the on-going torment of Israel, in Iran’s propping up of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria, and in the murder and maiming of American service men in Iraq.
When Soleimani was killed, he was in the company of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of the PMF who had led the attack on the Baghdad embassy and another non-nobody. They may have been talking about their shared hobby of trainspotting but it is far more likely they were planning another attack on Americans.
Did Iran’s dog wagging work? The massive demonstrations of mourning in Tehran may indicate success, but the sincerity of demonstrations supporting a dictatorship are questionable. Propaganda deludes their citizens but reality intrudes. Iran’s revenge rocket attack was even less damaging than Clinton’s 1998 tent shaking and aspirin factory destruction. It may fool Iranians willing to believe America was punished, but the dissidents in Iran will be encouraged by its ineffectiveness and by the killing of Soleimani, a key man in Iran’s dictatorship.
Iran’s elite must be unsettled. They know they are no longer outside the equation of terror wherein the puppet masters were safe and only the puppets were in danger. Khamenei, the ultimate puppet master, who said America could do nothing, is now aware that he was wrong, and that what can be done to puppets can be done to somebody who isn’t a nonentity. Will Iran refrain from future terrorism? That isn’t likely. They are a regime built on hate and sustained by hate. That hate will drive them to renew their attacks but now those in charge know there may be a significant price to pay.