Why Trump might be tempted into war
It wouldn't be out of character for the president to use war as a distraction from the Ukraine scandal
Does anybody trust a scandal-tarred President Trump to lead the country into war?
Trump is almost always mired in scandal, of course, and America is almost perpetually at war — the battle in Afghanistan, for example, has now lasted for a generation. But that doesn't make the question moot. Indeed, two factors have given this issue new urgency: the burgeoning controversy over Trump's interactions with Ukraine, and the continually rising tensions with Iran.
War talk is brewing. But so are questions about the president's judgment.
Recent American history tells us that the quickest way for a president to create a short-term burst in his approval ratings is to send troops into battle. But it is also true that a White House facing a crisis of legitimacy often has less leeway from the public, the press, and fellow politicians to put soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen in harm's way, or to kill foreign soldiers. For a scandal-stained president such as the one currently in office, such forays into battle could provoke accusations of "wagging the dog."
If you need a refresher: Wag the Dog is a film that came out in 1997, during President Bill Clinton's second term in office. The flick depicted a fictional president, mired in a sex scandal, who created a fake war to distract the country and boost his own popularity. One month after the movie was released, the public found out Clinton had been having an affair with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. The impeachment process started in earnest soon after.
During the march to impeachment, Clinton launched two major military attacks — one against a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant suspected of ties to Al Qaeda after bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, the other a four-day bombing campaign against Iraq, which was resisting submitting to U.N. inspections of its weapons programs. Both events prefigured America's major wars after 9/11, but at the time they were viewed with substantial suspicion by the press and Clinton's political opponents.
"Look at the movie Wag the Dog. I think this has all the elements of that movie," then-Congressman Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) told CNN at the time of the Sudan attack. "Our reaction to the embassy bombings should be based on sound credible evidence, not a knee-jerk reaction to try to direct public attention away from his personal problems."
The Clinton administration denied the allegations, saying it acted only in the best interest of America's national security — and maybe that's the case. But when a president becomes defined by their lies and bad behaviors, as Clinton had by 1998, it becomes difficult to trust anything about their leadership.
Which brings us back to Trump.
We already know that the president finds it nearly impossible to distinguish the country's interests from his own. He is susceptible to flattery, too willing to buddy up with dictators and murderers while giving a cold shoulder to America's traditional friends. If recent reports of Trump's improprieties with regards to Ukraine are true, it would not be an exaggeration to say his selfishness is in charge of U.S. foreign policy.
The good news is that Trump has so far proven reluctant to wage war in Iran. But if impeachment were to become a serious threat to his presidency — and the Ukraine scandal seems to have increased the likelihood of that happening — I wouldn't put it past him to use war as a method of distraction leading into 2020.
In that case, stopping Trump from wagging the dog could be difficult. The Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war, but the legislative branch in recent decades has deferred much of its warmaking initiative to the executive branch. Even if that were not the case, Trump remains the commander-in-chief of American forces — he can order them into battle and let Congress figure out the rest later.
Scandals tend to constrain a president's ability to launch wars abroad — and that is as it should be. Trump, however, has not shown himself one to be constrained. America should go into battle only if its citizens are confident their leader is making the right decisions for the right reasons. That doesn't sound like this president.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.