Join me in damning to hell Barry Levinson’s 1997 black comedy Wag the Dog, but not because it’s a bad movie. To the contrary, it’s inventive, entertaining and eminently rewatchable. It deserves our damnation because it’s addled our brains with the alluring “wag the dog” meme. In the movie, the president boosts his droopy approval ratings by, among other things, concocting a foreign conflict. Since the movie’s release, practically anytime a national leader needs to improve his ratings, critics are quick to accuse him of devising military action to divert the public’s attention from his problems. He’s said to be “wagging the dog,” that is, using the small part to move the big part.
Today, both Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin face charges of dog-wagging. Biden, whose approval ratings have cellared, is getting it from the hard right of the Federalist and Michael Savage. They fear he is scheming to rally the country around him by threatening Putin with military and diplomatic retaliation over Ukraine. Putin is using “wag-the-dog” politics in Ukraine, says New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, to take his countrymen’s eyes off Russia’s economic stagnation.
That’s a kennel full of wagging! It’s also completely implausible that the two presidents have decided to square off over Ukraine to increase their popularity. World politics are too unpredictable and too dangerous for a leader to saber-rattle and wage war just to improve their approval ratings. Life is not the movies, even though it should be. Wag the Dog was a terrific film, but its explanatory power over geopolitics is close to zero. Recent presidents have gotten little in the way of a popularity kick from their foreign interventions, so please stop invoking it.
That’s not an absolute position. If Biden were, say, making noises about invading Grenada again or toppling Panama, it might make sense to say that he’s wagging the dog. But you don’t have to understand game theory on the level of a John von Neumann to appreciate the foolishness of Biden confronting Russia over Ukraine and maybe igniting World War III in the process, just to ascend a few rungs in the Gallup Poll. Likewise, Putin’s willingness to cause trouble to distract Russia is huge. But in the case of Ukraine, preparing for war as a publicity stunt makes no sense. A simpler explanation—trafficked by professional Russia watchers, that Putin’s Ukraine encroachment is about restoring the Russian empire—suffices. Who needs the dog?
Biden isn’t the only contemporary president to be reproached for allegedly wagging the dog. President Bill Clinton got the wag-the-dog scolding from several corners when he launched a missile strike (unsuccessful) on Osama bin Laden in August 1998, said by some to distract the public from his sex scandal. President Donald Trump got it from Senator Elizabeth Warren and others in January 2020 when he had Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani killed. But these theories don’t hold up. Clinton’s approval ratings were high to begin with in 1998, ranging from 59 percent approval to 73 percent, and the strike made no real ripple. Trump’s ratings were low at the time and though they inched up a few points after the strike, there was no lasting effect. Ronald Reagan got almost nothing for his Grenada intervention and George H.W. Bush, already riding high in the polls got only a temporary boost for his Panama adventurism. George W. Bush’s solid approval ratings of 55 percent soared after 9/11, but that definitionally didn’t qualify as wagging-the-dog.
Even if presidents could establish that wagging the dog made political sense in the short term, it’s not apparent that the practice makes sense in the long run. The public tires of war. It tired of Afghanistan, Iran, Vietnam and Korea, where military adventurism became a political liability. The only long-term war that enjoyed longitudinal support in the United States during the past century was World War II, and that was not an elective military operation. We were attacked. There are a thousand less-fraught schemes that Biden could attempt short of warring on Putin that would improve his Gallup Poll performance. Could Biden even muster national support for a war with Russia, given our wariness of foreign interventions after the Afghanistan and Iraq debacles? Is there anybody left alive in the country who despises Russia the way we did when it was our Cold War Enemy No. 1? The right wing alone, led by Tucker Carlson and Trump, has done plenty to rehabilitate Russia’s reputation, meaning a plurality of Americans probably wouldn’t respond well to a Biden-sponsored military gambit there.
But what of Putin? In 2018, Washington Post reporter Adam Taylor reviewed the history of Putin’s popularity and political provocations to determine if he had succeeded in translating belligerence into higher ratings. Taylor found that Putin got a little bump in 2008 after invading Georgia but discounts it; Putin’s number was high before the invasion, and post-invasion his numbers fell hard. But in 2014, as Putin seized Crimea, he got a 20-percentage-point lift. But in the eight years since the Crimea annexation, Putin’s numbers have returned to their previous levels. It’s guesswork predicting how a Ukraine invasion might affect his numbers, especially if Ukraine resists. Will it be a replay of Georgia or Crimea?
Finally, if poll numbers inform Biden’s Ukraine strategy, he has recruited some very strange political partners in his Russia resistance. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has lined up on the president’s side, approving the administration’s plan to send Ukraine weapons and the deployment of NATO troops. “It appears to me that the administration is moving in the right direction,” McConnell said Tuesday.
If you believe that Biden is really wagging the dog in Ukraine, you will now have to also believe that he has transformed the obstructionist McConnell into his political lap dog. Fat chance of either.
“I Wanna Be Your Dog”remains the Stooges’ greatest hit. Roll over and send canine news to [email protected]. My email alerts preach peace in our time. My Twitter feed plugs for peace with honor. The motto painted on the fuselage of my RSS feed A-10 Warthog is “Small Wars and Demolitions.”