Some people are suspicious that President Bush will go for a "wag the dog" strategy -- boosting Republican prospects with a military assault on Iraq shortly before Election Day. But a modified approach now seems to be underway. Let's call it "wag the puppy."
After a number of GOP luminaries blasted his administration's war scenarios, Bush claimed to appreciate "a healthy debate." The president offered assurances that he would consult with Congress rather than take sudden action. But his handlers were simply adapting to circumstances that probably make it impractical for the Pentagon to kill a lot of Iraqis prior to Nov. 5.
Before initiating vast new carnage abroad, the White House wants its propaganda siege to take hold at home. Countless hours of airtime and huge vats of ink are needed to do the trick. Like safecrackers trying first one combination and then another, the Bush team will continue to twirl the media dials till their war-making rationales click.
The most widely publicized critics of attacking Iraq are hardly inclined to withstand the hot rhetorical winds that would accompany the first U.S. missile strikes. Objections from the likes of Dick Armey and Brent Scowcroft are apt to swiftly morph into pseudo-patriotic deference if Bush gives the order for the initial terrorizing launch of missiles against Iraqi cities. And history gives the president ample reasons to believe that most hand-wringing punditry will turn into applause when the Pentagon begins its slaughter.
Delaying war is very different than preventing it. In fact, many of the arguments marshaled in the mainstream media against a precipitous attack on Iraq appear to be accepting the need for the U.S. government to afflict that country with massive violence. Whether on Capitol Hill or in media venues, most of the criticism seems largely concerned with style, timing and tactics.
Quite a bit of flak has also come from pro-war commentators who want Bush to get his militaristic act together. The bloodthirsty editor of The Atlantic magazine, Michael Kelly, used his Aug. 21 column on The Washington Post's op-ed page to lament "the president's refusal to wage a coherent campaign to win public -- and, let's force the issue, congressional -- approval for the war."
While President Bush huddled with hawks at the top of the pecking order in Crawford, war enthusiasts were on the offensive across the nation's media landscape. Their efforts were adding to a sustained volume of valuable news coverage. The mid-summer media focus on Iraq has offered tangible benefits for Shrub's party -- including real progress in changing the subject.
The more that Iraq dominates front pages, magazine covers, news broadcasts and cable channels, the less space there is for such matters as the intensifying retirement worries of many Americans, the Wall Street scandals, and specific stories about entanglements that link Bush or Dick Cheney with malodorous corporate firms like Enron, Harken and Halliburton.
In August, the "healthy debate" over Iraq has displaced a range of negative economic stories from the top of the news. Bush's advisers would hardly mind if a similar pattern held through early November.
For the next couple of months, the president has domestic political incentives to keep "wagging the puppy" while floating a variety of unsubstantiated claims -- like references to wispy dots that implausibly connect the Iraqi dictatorship and al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, sending more ships and aircraft to the Persian Gulf region can be calculated to evoke plenty of televised support-our-troops spectacles. With Old Glory in the background as tearful good-byes are exchanged at U.S. military ports and bases, how many politicians or journalists will challenge the manipulative tactics of the commander-in-chief?
Even if the White House doesn't sic the Pentagon on Iraqi people before the November elections, its efforts to boost pre-war fever between now and then could have enormous media impacts with big dividends at the polls. This fall, our country may see something short of a "wag the dog" extravaganza provided by leading officials of the Bush administration. But unless we can stop them, the full-grown dogs of war are not far behind.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.