On Thursday, Oct. 8, 1998, the House of Representatives voted on an impeachment inquiry resolution against then-President Bill Clinton.
That same day, Clinton, speaking at a health care event in the White House’s Roosevelt room, announced, “Yesterday I decided that the United States would vote to give NATO the authority to carry out military strikes against Serbia if President Milosevic continues to defy the international community.”
Ten months earlier, on Jan. 9, New Line Cinema had released “Wag the Dog,” a frighteningly prophetic movie in which a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) and a presidential spin doctor (Robert DeNiro) concoct a war in Albania – complete with refugees, a hero and a theme-song – in order to take the heat off of a presidential sex scandal.
The only significant difference between the actions of the Clinton administration and the fiction of the movie seems to be that President Clinton’s war wasn’t against Albania, but on behalf of ethnic Albanians residing in Kosovo.
The “wag the dog” phenomenon was nothing new in 1998; every American military intervention since the Vietnam War has arguably displayed some symptoms. As the role of the media in shaping public opinion, reporting on – and to some extent creating – world events has soared, political figures have responded by wising up to ever-craftier methods of media-manipulation. Take Dick Cheney and his “bureau of misinformation” (gone now, he promises) for starters.
However, it seems that wagging the dog has taken an accidental twist. Much to George W. Bush and his administration’s dismay, the escalation of violence in the Middle East has sent what should be an embarrassing war on terrorism to page two of the collective American political consciousness. More importantly, it has distracted the international community from giving its full attention to America’s PR-slash-anti-terrorism rhetorical campaign.
Bush entered office intent on taking a far less active role than his predecessor in mediating the conflict in the Middle East. When the violence of the second intifada would periodically escalate to a level at which it would have been both ridiculous and embarrassing for the President of the United States to shy from comment, he made half-hearted and disinterested calls for restraint from Israelis and Palestinians alike.
The U.S. has now sent Gen. Anthony Zinni back to Israel to help the negotiations process, George Bush’s next call in a confusing back and forth policy dance. Left (Sept. 11 comes and Bush deploys Zinni to push the Mitchell and Tenet peace plans)-right (the violence increases and Bush pulls Zinni out until the situation grows quieter and safer)-left (the U.S. wants the conflict solved and solved fast so the world can get back to crying for our losses and backing the war on terror).
Why is it that now Bush decides to pick up the slack of a neglected responsibility to peace-advocacy in the most volatile – and somehow, the most symbolic – New Jersey-sized piece of land in the world?
The answer is not about a lasting peace in the Middle East. Somehow, the United States, vying for international support, has selfishly managed to make the Mideast peace process not about peace, not about the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, but about us.
The United States is playing the impetulant and ignored middle child.
A lot of it comes down to the reality (about which Bush is unapologetic) that we want to settle our scores against Iraq. We want to bomb them but we want to bomb them with international support. After we’ve taken care of Afghanistan, it would be an even uglier move in the eyes of Arab states to attack Iraq and continue to hate on or simply ignore the Palestinians at the same time.
But the irony is that Arab states aren’t paying that much attention to us at the moment – and neither are European ones. The world has found something more important to worry about in the Arab-Israeli conflict than the United States’ vengeful and arbitrary war on terrorism.
Reentering the negotiations process serves two purposes. We look good to the international community; we look like we care about the security issues that countries other than ourselves face.
Second, we move along a peace process so the world can get back to caring about what we wish it were focused on right now: Throwing support behind the impending attacks on the axis of evil. Supporting continued attacks on Afghanistan and the Philippines. Supporting our own terrorism in the name of extinguishing terror.
Last week, Vice President Cheney concluded an 11-country grand tour of the Middle East and North Africa. A very real piece of news has interfered with the spotlight on the United States and Cheney was out there making sure to get it turned back on.
We won’t let anyone forget what the United States suffered one Tuesday in September. Even if it means pretending like we genuinely care about someone else.
Johanna Hanink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.