Conspiracy Times – Wag the Dog
In 1997, the world at large was still relatively innocent about “political spin”. It is fair to say that the film “Wag the Dog”, despite not being the biggest of blockbusters, made an important contribution in the general public’s understanding of political spin.
by Philip Coppens
The title of the movie was taken from a 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.” As usual, there are various interpretations as to what it means. Some suggest that the dog symbolises public opinion, and that the tail represents the media; others suggest that the dog is the media, and the tail is political campaigns. But the most likely opinion is that the dog is the people and that the tail is the government. In short, the expression “the tail wagging the dog” refers to any case where something of greater significance (such as a war) is driven by something less (such as a sex scandal).
“Wag the Dog” is about a Washington spin doctor (Robert De Niro) who distracts the electorate from a presidential sex scandal, this in the final stages of a presidential election, by hiring a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to create a fake war. You may think that the movie was a reaction to Bill Clinton’s infamous relationship with Monica Lewinsky… but you would be wrong. In fact, reality seemed to mimic fiction!
Indeed, less than a month after the movie was released, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair became headline news. Perhaps this was in the stars, for during filming, de Niro and Hofmann went out for dinner one night and ran into President Clinton, all of them together posing for the cameras. Over the course of 1998 and early 1999, as the scandal dominated American politics, Clinton seemed to take inspiration from the movie and engaged US forces in three military campaigns. There was Operation Desert Fox, a three-day bombing campaign in Iraq, which took place at the time when the House of Representatives debated articles of impeachment against Clinton. There was Operation Infinite Reach, a pair of missile strikes against suspected terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, just three days after Clinton admitted in a nationally televised address that he had indeed had an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky. Thirdly, Operation Allied Force, a months-long NATO bombing campaign against Serbia that began just weeks after Clinton was acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial. No wonder that critics charged that these operations were an attempt to distract public attention away from the Lewinsky scandal; Serb state television went so far as to broadcast Wag the Dog in the midst of the NATO attacks on Serbia. Though the movie seemed to inspire Clinton, the movie itself was inspired by “real events” too, it being based on the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart. In it, the president is George Herbert Walker Bush and the fake war is Desert Storm, the first Iraq war. Beinhart alleged Bush had been scheming up the Persian Gulf War to guarantee re-election in 1992, in which he failed. This may seem an outrageous statement, but when you read books such as Pierre Salinger’s on how the Kuwait-Iraq crisis came about, it is clear that some people did not want peace, and hoped that a desperate Saddam Hussein would have no alternative but to express his frustration and desolation by invading Kuwait – a last resort, which in the Western media was shown off as an act of aggression. Equally, the unpopular war in Iraq by his son George W Bush has been seen by many as an excuse which he used during his re-election campaign, underlining that the entire world was out to get the U.S. – whereas the entire world was actually hoping that Bush would get out of the White House and a more moderate regime would take its place. To accomplish this, Iraq was depicted as a hotbed of Al Qaedi terrorism and Hussein promoted as the man behind 9/11 – two statements which are totally false, but which, through repeated promotion as “true” have left many American citizens believing these self-serving lies.
The message – and the story – is simple: war will by default come to the front pages, specifically if a soldier is held hostage or “our boys” are dying – see for example the capture of two Israeli soldiers in the summer of 2006, which resulted in the Israeli bombing if not invasion of Lebanon. Soon afterwards, the fate of the two men completely disappeared and I would ask anyone whether they know the fate of these two captured soldiers… lost as it became in the “bigger picture”. Wag the Dog starts in the final two weeks leading up to the presidential election. The presidential campaign is reiterating to “never chance horses in midstream” and “always stick with the winner”. Unfortunately, a most unlikely story, namely that the president has had a brief affair with a girl in the White House, is picked up by the media. Immediately, the White House brings in “Mr. Fix It”, who begins a series of diversionary tactics. He orders the President to stay in China for one day longer, quoting “illness”. Equally, he launches a rumour about “the B3 Bomber”. The aides immediately argue that there is no such bomber, to soon realise that the game of allegation and subsequent denial is a powerful tool at the hands of the government, and often used from the sublime to the ridiculous, such as UFOs. Hence, the White House has a news reporter (a plant) ask whether the extended stay of the President in China has any relationship with the B3 Bomber, to which comes the standard denial that there is no such bomber and that the President is in China for trade relations negotiations. The story is then linked with how the President may have to deploy the B3 Bomber before it is fully tested, suggesting that somehow there may a crisis looming – suggesting, purely by his presence in China, that it may be linked with China. This, a possible crisis is created… fabricated.
The immediate outcome is thus that the President will return later than planned, which means valuable extra time for the Fix It Campaign to install further diversionary fodder before the President will have to face any direct question from the media about the sex scandal. Equally, the White House begins to hold an endless series of press conferences, if only to make sure that the opposition gets less coverage than the White House; they are drowning them out, which should really be described as abuse of power, but which is nevertheless a standard government practice. Mr Fix It decides to bring in a Hollywood producer to stage the entire diversion. Various real life examples are then used to illustrate the point that the general public are no longer capable of distinguishing truth from fiction, and thus to introduce the producer to “real life producing”. First example is how, when 240 marines were killed in Beyruth, President Reagan ordered the invasion of Granada within the next 24 hours. Another example is the Gulf War, from which most will remember the precision bombing of one bomb through a chimney, highlighting America’s capability and thus off-setting the fact that an enormous amount of bombs were injuring innocent civilians, which got paraded on Iraqi and Arab television. Very few images of Gulf War indeed exist and the movie makes it clear that all of them could easily be faked. It is pointed out that the building could have been made out of Lego and no-one would know.
It is decided that an international threat needs to exist. The chosen country is Albania. “Why?” “Why not?”
The choice of Albania was not a coincidence. The break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s did not address the Albanian population of Kosovo. Continuing Serbian repression had radicalised many Albanians, some of whom decided that only armed resistance would effect a change in the situation. On April 22, 1996, four attacks on Serbian civilians and security personnel were carried out virtually simultaneously in several parts of Kosovo. A hitherto unknown organization calling itself the “Kosovo Liberation Army” (KLA) subsequently claimed responsibility. Though often publicly labelled as “terrorists” by the US government, in practice, the US largely endorsed their cause and never made any effort to cut off their funding or import of weapons.
It is now that the story of the sex scandal breaks, as “Breaking news: local girl in White House sexual misconduct with the President inside the Oval Office. Waiting response.” His presidential opponent is Senator John Neal, who immediately is asked to comment: “If it is true, he must step down. If it is not…”, leaving it hanging, implying that even if not true… the president still has to do something! The status is now clear: they have eleven days to “hold the dam” until the election. At the next press conference the White House holds, one journalist asks about the B3 Bomber, but already, that rumour is secondary to rumours of an Albanian Task Force, which the White House denies too. Other journalists then jump onto the bandwagon and ask whether this is linked with “Muslim Fundamentalists”… somewhat innovative given the timeframe of the movie, 1996… and which in some conspiratorial minds may make on wonder whether in 2001 the government borrowed again from Wag the Dog.
Meanwhile, the producer is there to literally produce a war: visuals, a theme… and even a musical score. So what is wrong about Albania? The US government has found out they have the bomb. Still, atomic bombs need methods of delivery, so it is decided that it is a “suitcase bomb”. As Albania is in Europe and the threat needs to be at one’s doorstep (see Tony Blair in 2002-3, claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could reach British people in 45 minutes – which turned out to be British troops in Cyprus, and not the British mainland), the Canadian border is the scene of the threat: Albanian terrorists have placed a suitcase bomb in Canada, in order to infiltrate America, obviously in an attempt to explode it there and kill potentially millions of people.
The conclusion of Act 1 is seen as concluding with Albania denying the accusations, with the President going on air and show that he is a leader – noting that George W. Bush frequently alluded to his job as being that of “a leader”. The producer then wants to map out Act 2, but as the elections are less than two weeks away, it is deemed that there is no need for a second act. Still, to make Act 1 real, news footage is required. The choice falls on a desperate girl running from mayhem inside Albania. Here is some situational humour, used throughout the movie, for the girl needs to be carrying a kitten, which the production team seem hard-pressed to find. There are offers of dogs and various types of posh cats, as a result of which a “bag” is used, which is then digitally transformed into the cat of choice. Equally, they have the actress sign a security clearance, covering up the entire exercise under the blanket of “national security” – another clear abuse of power. Almost immediately, the world is confronted with a “young Albanian fleeing from terrorist reprisals in her village.” Seeing is believing…
There are several smaller themes running through this story. One is the constant worrying whether or not the people that are involved in this smokescreen are illegal immigrants: this applies to the actress as well as a farm hand who makes a later appearance. For the White House officials, employing illegal immigrants, even if accidental, is seen as a far bigger crime than setting into scene a war that does not actually exist. Equally, the “celebrity endorsement” and a local angle is sought for, with questions whether there any Albanian restaurants and letting the rumour float that the actor Jim Belushi is – could be? – Albanian.
The outcome is that in one day, the story of the firefly girl that might have had a fling with the president has disappeared from the front page. Instead, America is going to war and there is optimism, as the President is looking for a swift and victorious outcome to the war – very much like Bush predicted for the Iraq War… and take your pick which Bush I am referring to. On day two, an Albanian harvest festival is created in which a young girl gives the first sheaf to the president, showing that the Albanians are actually behind this initiative… just like the West is bringing democracy to Iraq. To add for visual impact, Mr. Fix It has Air Force One diverted to Boca Raton, so that President can take this gesture while it is raining.
Unfortunately for them, the White House has kept the intelligence agencies out of the loop. Thus, the CIA makes contact with the spin unit, stating that Albania does not have any nuclear capacity, and that there are no signs of terrorism or danger along the Canadian border. Do they know that the real Albanian government is screaming in indignation? That there is no war? Mr. Fix It merely points out that “Of course there is a war. It’s on television.” And “What good are the spy satellites if they show no war?” Again, prophetically, he tells the CIA that there is a new type of war: “global terrorism. That is the war of the future. The CIA needs to prepare for that war.” It was four years before 9/11… Meanwhile, the war has received its theme tune: “We guard our American borders. We guard the American dreams. We have a right to fight for democracy and keep our country free.” The CIA is not happy with the White House and instead makes contact with presidential opponent John Neal, who goes on air stating that “the CIA confirms that the Albanian problem is resolved.” The war has ended and slowly, the story of the presidential sex scandal is beginning to be emerge in the news again. Mr Fix It is defeated, but not the producer. He has created the war… only he can direct it. So the war may be over… but not everyone is home yet. So he invents the story of how a brave American service man is left behind. A hero. “We forgot a hero. You can’t have a war without a hero.” He has been left behind like an old shoe and immediately, Willie Nelson is asked to make a new song. Military records are searched until one soldier, named William Schumann, is found. He is made out to be held by a dissident group of terrorists and in a photograph which the terrorists have “released”, Schumann is using Morse code on his shirt, spelling out “Courage Mom”, playing on emotions, suggesting that despite his own ordeal, he can only think of his mother and what she must feel and think. What a good son… a real hero!
Situational humour comes into the script again when it is clear that the White House has not made a thorough background check into Schumann, who is found to have been committed to a mental institution. Of course, his mental illness will be ascribed to him having suffered from torture by the enemy, thus making him into an even bigger hero.
Act Two is now live. First, they insert the newly made Willie Nelson song into the Library of Congress 1930s collection, where it will “accidentally” be discovered.
Then, the producers begin to throw old shoe from trees, which is then leaked to the media, pretending to be popular support for Schumann’s cause. Immediately, America is in the grip of Schumann.
How people will run with anything was told to me by a guide in the Samaria Gorge in Crete, one of the most popular and beautiful walks in the world. When the tourist season opened in the spring a few years ago, particularly hard flooding during winter time had made the path disappear in places. The guides had thus placed small heaps of stone in certain areas, pointing out the track of the path. But over a week, several people had built similar heaps of stone… and within a few months, there were literally hundreds of them, which I could see with my own eyes…
But in Wag the Dog, the reaction is orchestrated, not spontaneous. This is now known as “astroturfing”, a formal public relations campaign which seems to be a spontaneous, grassroots response or initiative. Hence the reference to “AstroTurf”, which is artificial grass that mimics natural grass. “Viral marketing” and blog posts on the internet have since become two notorious examples of astroturfing, but it is but one of a number of orchestrated campaigns that have been identified. Local newspapers are often victims of astroturfing, receiving and then publishing letters that are identical to letters other newspapers have received.
Larger newspapers are victims of these tactics too. In 2001, the Los Angeles Times accused Microsoft of astroturfing, when hundreds of similar letters were sent to newspapers voicing disagreement with the United States Department of Justice and its antitrust suit against Microsoft. The letters, prepared by Americans for Technology Leadership, had in some cases been mailed from deceased citizens or nonexistent addresses. In the 2005 UK general election, the Labour Party packed press conferences with party workers who appeared as genuine, concerned members of the public. The Labour Party, The Conservative Party and The Liberal Democrat Party workers also sent letters to the local press purporting to be ordinary members of the public; all of the letters conformed to a common template covering specific party issues. All were fake… showing that all parties play the game dirty… and underlining that politics and war… Schumann’s return home does not go as planned; the plane crashes and Schumann is killed when he tries to rape a girl. As such, he returns as a dead war hero… in the end, it is clear that act two was actually overproduced: all you really need is a photograph of the hero, and a coffin… you do not even need a body inside it if you don’t want to.
Eventually, this is sufficient to guarantee the president’s re-election, but the producer now wants to tell the world what he has been able to pull off: re-elect the President. Mr. Fix It needs to fix that situation and has the producer murdered, though he officially dies of a heart attack, while sunbathing poolside. The movie ends with the news item that Albania Unite is now claiming credit for the bombing of a village and that the US is stating that planes will be sent back in to do and finish the job. The message of the movie was that “Seeing is no longer believing”. The producers of the movie underlined that when the line is blurred, people become more sceptical… which has in the decade since Wag the Dog become true of most news stories: people no longer trust any official statement and see it rather as evidence that there is a cover-up. Of course, it are PR methodologies such as astroturfing that have made people aware of how they are there to be lied to and are only good for their vote at election time, please do not express your opinion at any other time… like in massive demonstrations against unpopular wars.
The producers argued that the movie showed the impact of television on our society and specifically the fact that the news cycle had become so much faster, which had resulted in a general lower standard of reporting. At the time, this was aptly illustrated in reports about how Princess Diana had walked away with minor bruises from her crash in the tunnel in Paris… which in fact had killed her. The change is illustrated by the fact that Kennedy had three days to prepare a statement for the Cuban Missile Crisis, whereas today, politicians are asked to have an almost instantaneous response; see for example George Bush and how to react when 9/11 happened… and the insight of Blair that he was one of a few people who could throw himself into the political scene (extremely important for a politician) and thus suggest that the reaction to 9/11 was not purely an American reaction, but had to be a coordinated reaction of democratic nations against the new terrorist threat posed. Wag the Dog had situational humour and hammered the point home. But a similar movie to Wag the Dog was the 1995 movie “Canadian Bacon”, a comedy/satire and the only fictional film written, directed and produced by Michael Moore. Here, the US President (Alan Alda) is faced with falling opinion ratings and decides to go to war to distract voters from domestic troubles, as well as to invigorate the economy. The problem is that with the demise of the Soviet Union, there’s no-one left to go to war with. The comic aspect thus throws Canada (“everyone hates Canadians”) in the role of the new enemy nation #1 – rather than Albania, though we note that Canada plays an “important” role in Wag the Dog too. Intriguingly, during the brainstorming session with his cabinet, the President comments that going to war with Canada was as ridiculous as going to war with terrorists (“A bunch of guys driving around blowing up rent-a-cars”), a theme picked up by Wag the Dog… and the government later on? Or was Hollywood so attuned to what the real future problems would be? Perhaps Moore was particularly incensed with the Bush administration for stealing some of his ideas? As Moore would however not merely produce, but also direct Fahrenheit 9/11… he did win international awards at the Cannes film festival. Such a political statement from the film industry, largely inflating a movie that was more a documentary than a film to the status of the winner of an international contest, was another situational humour moment in the history of the relationship between Hollywood at large and the corridors of power… or should that read political power?