Film class — week 10

27 October 2006, 1754 EDT

Film #10 “Wag the Dog” (1997). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Jane Kellett Cramer, “‘Just Cause’ or Just Politics? U.S. Panama Invasion and Standardizing Qualitative Tests for Diversionary War,” 32 Armed Forces & Society, Spring 2006, pp. 178-201.

The students and I are in the midst of watching a number of comedies about global politics in order to consider various critical perspectives. After all, among other virtues, comedies amplify the ridiculous and help one identify hypocrisy.

The biting satirical film “Wag the Dog” was made in 1997, but it resonated powerfully throughout the political year 1998. In January of that latter year, the Drudge Report broke the Monica Lewinsky story — though President Bill Clinton quite famously and publicly denied the nature of the relationship. In late July, the former White House intern testified to Ken Starr’s Grand Jury under immunity. On August 17, President Bill Clinton went before that same panel to give his side of the story. Clinton gave a speech later that night admitting publicly that he had had an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky.

On August 20, American cruise missiles struck in Afghanistan and Sudan.

By December, impeachment proceedings against Clinton were well under way in the House of Representatives. The impeachment votes were held on December 19.

From December 16 to 19, the US conducted a major air bombardment campaign against Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) because Saddam Hussein was failing to comply with UN Security Council resolutions concerning weapons inspections.

Clinton critics charged that both these uses of force were diversionary. However, the scholar Ryan Hendrickson has developed four propositions for identifying diversionary wars and concludes that these two 1998 cases failed to meet the tests.

After all, missing from the above chronology are a couple of important facts from August. On the 7th, al Qaeda terrorists bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing over 250 people and wounding thousands. The armed US response came less than two weeks later.

Also that month, Iraq terminated its cooperation with UN weapons inspections. The Republican-controlled Congress later passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which Clinton signed on October 31. In November, under US and British pressure, Hussein allowed weapons inspectors to return, but continued to play cat-and-mouse games with them — perhaps to give Iran the false impression that he had weapons of mass destruction. In any case, Clinton had briefed leaders of Congress about the possibility of armed response three weeks prior to the attacks — and publicly declared that the US needed to strike before Ramadan.

These events did not merely provide Clinton with a good cover story; rather, they suggest that he was using force in response to the international context.

Cramer, in contrast, concludes that George H.W. Bush did undertake a diversionary war against Panama in 1989. As I’ve previously noted, Bush the elder certainly used that odd occasion to declare an end to the “Vietnam syndrome.”

During class, the students and I discussed Hendrickson’s proposition’s (as modified by Cramer) in the context of the current Iraq war. I had asked them each to investigate at least two of the propositions vis-à-vis the current war. Given the lengthy public debate and buildup to war, it is very difficult to argue that Iraq was was a diversionary war. Plus, political scientists seldom find evidence for diversionary wars. It was easy to find evidence for a couple of the propositions — the diplomacy was seemingly cut short, the use of force seemed premature and there was great international criticism of the war.

Finally, we discussed the well-known “rally ’round the flag” effect and wondered if Presidents might be tempted to use force to build support for an otherwise unpopular political agenda — or perhaps as a means to consolidate political power. These may seem like scenarios from 1984, but sometimes it seems as if these are Orwellian times.

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