Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

 "Trump is having the kind of fall from grace politically that typically tempts presidents into some sort of military action," Cole writes. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)

Plummeting in Polls, Will Trump 'Wag the Dog' With Iran, North Korea?

"The conjuncture of these two pieces of news—Trump making cryptic but dire threats and Trump’s astonishing unpopularity—creates the threat of a wag the dog scenario."

Juan Cole

 by Informed Comment

The Voice of America reports that on Thursday, Trump met with US military leaders to discuss Iran and North Korea, then staged a photo opportunity with them. He asked the journalists,

“You guys know what this represents? . . . Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”

What storm?

“You’ll find out.”

Trump has menaced North Korea with “fire and fury” and is now said to be determined to decertify Iran on compliance with the nuclear deal (the International Atomic Energy Agency, which inspects Iran’s nuclear facilities, says Iran is in compliance).

Trump is a blowhard and you can’t pay too much attention to his bluster or you’d never get any sleep.

But what is worrying is that Trump’s poll numbers are cratering in a way unprecedented for any modern president, as a just-released Associated Press poll makes clear:

chart2

In March, 42 percent of respondents approved of Trump’s handling of his job.

In late September, only 32 percent said they approved of Trump’s job performance.

67 percent or over 2/3s say they disapprove. Let’s just underline that a 2/3s majority is required in Congress to impeach a president.

Even among Republicans, his approval numbers fell from 80 percent last spring to 67 percent today. (Two-thirds of Republicans apparently wouldn’t care if Bozo the Clown was president as long as he said he was a Republican).

The conjuncture of these two pieces of news–Trump making cryptic but dire threats and Trump’s astonishing unpopularity–creates the threat of a wag the dog scenario.

Americans rally around the flag when the US goes to war, and presidents know this. The 1997 dark comedy film directed by Barry Levinson, “Wag the Dog,” gave its name to this strategy (in the movie, a phony war with Albania is used as a means of distracting the public from a candidate’s sex scandal).

George W. Bush was widely viewed as a buffoon before 9/11 and the Iraq War, and only in 2006 did the buffoon image return to some extent. The war likely saved his presidency, and that may be one of the reasons Bush launched it.

Trump is having the kind of fall from grace politically that typically tempts presidents into some sort of military action.

And that is why we should take his “calm before the storm” threat seriously.


© 2021 Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His newest book, "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires" was published in 2020. He is also the author of  "The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East" (2015) and "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East" (2008).  He has appeared widely on television, radio, and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. 

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Game-Changer and Reason for Hope': House Passes Inflation Reduction Act

"We've got more to do," Rep. Pramila Jayapal said on the House floor. "But today, let's celebrate this massive investment for the people."

Jake Johnson ·


'This Is Insane': Search Warrant Indicates FBI Investigating Trump for Espionage Act Violation

"If you're not fed up," said watchdog group Public Citizen, "you're not paying enough attention."

Jessica Corbett ·


Anti-War Veterans Group Asks Biden to 'Read Our Nuclear Posture Review Before Releasing Yours'

"Are you willing to risk a civilization-ending apocalypse by playing nuclear chicken with other nuclear-armed nations? Or will you lead us toward a planet that is free of nuclear weapons?"

Jessica Corbett ·


'Big Win' for Public Lands and Climate as US Judge Reinstates Coal Lease Ban

"It's past time that this misguided action by the Trump administration is overturned," said one environmental campaigner.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Five-Alarm Crisis': US Has Shortage of 300K Teachers, School Staff

To stay in their profession, said a union leader, educators need "professional respect" including fair pay and the right "to make teaching and learning decisions for their students."

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo