The Atlantic

Wag the Embassy

The timing and circumstances of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement suggest he might be the latest president to view a splashy overseas maneuver as a solution to domestic political woes.
Source: Evan Vucci / AP

On Christmas Day 1997, the movie Wag the Dog hit theaters, telling the story of a president of the United States who, caught making advances on an underaged girl, launches a war on Albania to distract the public.

The next day, a young staffer named Monica Lewinsky quit her job at the Pentagon.

Skipping over just a little bit of detail, on August 17, 1998, eight months later, President Bill Clinton testified before a grand jury inquiring into his affair with Lewinsky while she was a White House intern. That evening, Clinton spoke to the nation and admitted having “a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate.” Three days later, Clinton ordered airstrikes on terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.

The parallels between the film, suddenly imbued with an aura of prescience, and real-life did not go unnoticed. The movie has since become shorthand for presidents attempting diversionary tactics. Though Clinton’s administration saw the birth of the term, it was hardly a novel maneuver. In recent history alone, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush have all been accused of wagging the dog.

It’s possible, the president is expected on Wednesday to announce U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as well as vague future plans to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In making a splashy global move that panders to American domestic political dynamics, and in doing so just days after former investigating the administration, the president’s impending decision on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel looks a lot like his own wag-the-dog moment—though in other ways, it doesn’t fit the template.

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