Note: This article was completed on February 4, 2009, before final election results were available.
In Larry Beinert's 1993 novel American Hero, there is speculation that President George Herbert Walker Bush orchestrated the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq to distract Americans from a recession. The book remained obscure until the 1997 movie “Wag the Dog” starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, which generated a phrase to be applied in every American media analysis of war from then on. Yet nearly twenty years after the first war with Iraq, the United States found itself ironically the target of a similar “Wag the Dog” campaign by politicians in its former target.
This “Wag the Dog” theory presupposes that leaders manufacture wars abroad to divert their people from some domestic problem. The science behind this theory comes from work by Georg Simmel and Lewis Coser, whose hypothesis contends that “in-group” cohesion is achieved by demonizing an “out-group.”
Iraqi leaders serving under U.S. occupation have copied this “Wag the Dog” strategy in their own electoral campaigns. Appointed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi blamed Syria and Iran for violence in his country and tied both to his Shi’i party rivals in his first electoral campaign in January 2005. His successors Ibrahim Jafari and Nuri al-Maliki borrowed the “Wag the Dog” tactic in targeting Saudi Arabia, hyping disputes over pilgrimage visas and terrorism funding as a way of undercutting Sunni rival politicians at home.
Another Iraqi player used a similar strategy in last week’s provincial elections. During the election season, Shi’i leader Moqtada al-Sadr and his allies sought every occasion to rattle sabers against the United States, blaming the country for domestic troubles. Not only did they vote unanimously against the U.S.-Iraqi security pact—as well as labeling the day of its passage a “black day,” calling for a three day “mourning” period, and conducting protest marches—but they did their best to link their prior battles with the United States to the current election campaign. Al-Sadr and his loyalists even used as an election campaign site the graveyard in the holy city of Najaf, the site of their famous battle with U.S. troops, posting posters and pictures of the candidates upon the walls.
In any successful “Wag the Dog” strategy, the foreign foe is not the only opponent. Al-Sadr sought to link the United States to Prime Minister al-Maliki (who launched a military offensive against al-Sadr loyalists in Basra earlier this year) and to his coalition over the latter's support of the security pact with the United States. Even the famous “shoe throwing incident” against President Bush was carried out by a journalist who had covered the U.S. bombing of Sadr City.
So why do al-Sadr and others see the need for a “Wag the Dog” strategy? What is their domestic hurdle to overcome? As the New York Times reported on January 19, in a poll of over 4,500 Iraqis by the National Media Center, 41 percent expressed a preference for secular candidates, while only 31 percent supported candidates endorsed by a religious party. Responses suggest that Iraqis are weary of what they see as religious rule, blaming the parties for the sectarian violence within the country. A pair of unscientific polls by the New York Times in Basra and Mosul achieved a relatively similar distribution. And early election results support the findings.
It appears that al-Sadr and his supporters hoped to best their Iraqi rivals with this tactic, without losing any supporters in a bloody insurgency against the Americans and Iraqi government. But does such a gambit work in Iraq? Allawi finished third in his 2005 race. The policy of distractions did not help Jafari keep his post as prime minister. Early reports indicate that the policy may have backfired for al-Sadr as well. Press reports suggest that religious parties were largely routed in the elections, while Prime Minister al-Maliki’s Da’wa Party did better by downplaying its religious roots and fielding candidates in a “State of Law Coalition.” Those losses reportedly extended to Sadr City and al-Sadr’s allies, where voters preferred candidates who focused more on the economy and less on religion. Religious parties also faced losses in the Shi’i stronghold of Najaf.
Will al-Sadr and other Iraqis finally learn their lesson about diversionary tactics? As Iraqi political analyst Mustafa al-Ani told the Associated Press, “The elections gave us an indication of what will happen in the general election late this year. Those who lost in this election have nearly a year to learn their lesson and change their strategy. They now know where the Iraqis stand.” There are also rumors that al-Sadr’s forces could realign themselves with al-Maliki, a possibility that should have tongues wagging in Iraq.
John A. Tures is associate professor of Political Science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.