Wag the Doubt 

How you look at things.
Dec. 20 1998 3:30 AM

Wag the Doubt 

The debate over Clinton's Iraq attack blazes new frontiers in cynicism.

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Did President Clinton "wag the dog" by bombing Iraq on the eve of the House impeachment debate? Politicians and pundits launched the rhetorical war over that question even before the first missiles fell in Baghdad. While the damage mounts in Iraq, the debate at home is dragging politics to new depths. Here's a glossary of the debaters' latest tactics, in morally descending order.

1. Overt Cynicism. The politician accuses Clinton of wagging the dog. Example: "It is obvious that he is doing this for political reasons" (Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y.).

2.Cynicism by innuendo. The accuser phrases the dog-wagging charge obliquely so that he can deny having made it. Example: "We have had either hostilities or threatened hostilities at interesting times throughout the last year" (incoming House Speaker Bob Livingston).

3. Backhanded cynicism. The accuser implies dog-wagging by saying either a) he can't bring himself to believe Clinton would wag the dog; or b) the White House has assured him it's not so. Example: "While I have been assured by administration officials that there is no connection with the impeachment process ... [b]oth the timing and the policy are subject to question" (Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott).

4. Cynicism about principle. The accuser argues that because Clinton is inherently unprincipled, any seemingly principled behavior on his part is fishy. Example: Clinton must have bombed Iraq to avoid impeachment, because "how else to explain the sudden appearance of a backbone that has been invisible up to now?" (Solomon).

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

5. Cynicism by association. The accuser doesn't allege a causal relationship between the impeachment process and the bombing, but he blames Clinton for the correlation anyway. Example: "President Clinton has indelibly associated a justified military response ... with his own wrongdoing. ... Clinton has now injected the impeachment process against him into foreign policy, and vice versa" (Jim Hoagland, Washington Post).

6. Vicarious cynicism. Rather than stand behind his cynicism, the accuser attributes it to others. Example: "It is dangerous for an American president to launch a military strike, however justified, at a time when many will conclude he acted only out of narrow self-interest to forestall or postpone his own impeachment" (Wall Street Journal editorial).

7. Fake idealism about cynicism. The accuser says other people's cynicism makes it impossible for Clinton to govern well. Example: "The point is not whether this president would [wag the dog] ... [b]ut for some significant portion of the population ... there must be that doubt. And that doubt is the crucial nexus. ... A president must have credibility when he makes decisions about peace or war" (former Reagan lawyer Peter Wallison, New York Times op-ed).

8. Fake patriotism about cynicism. Democrats say Republicans who accuse Clinton of wagging the dog are inadvertently aiding and comforting the enemy. Example: "Shame on you [Republicans] for playing into the hands of Saddam" (Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass.).

9. McCarthyism about cynicism. Democrats say Republicans who accuse Clinton of wagging the dog are deliberately aiding and comforting the enemy. Example: The GOP's remarks were "as close to a betrayal of the interests of the United States as I've ever witnessed in the United States Congress" (Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J.).

10. Recidivist cynicism. Having accused Republicans of cynicism for suggesting that Clinton cynically used the Iraq conflict to delay the impeachment vote, Democrats use the conflict to delay the vote. Example: The House should "not take up impeachment until the hostilities have ended. It shouldn't come up as long as our troops are in harm's way" (House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt).

11. Cynicism about cynicism. While publicly accusing Republicans of tactics aimed at gaining political advantage, Democrats privately gloat that the tactics will give Democrats a political advantage. Example: " 'The rules we've always had is that politics stop at the shore," one senior White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. 'Somebody changed the rules and it wasn't us.' But Clinton advisers said that they expected Mr. Lott's comments to backfire" (New York Times).

12. Reverse cynicism. While accusing Clinton of invoking the Iraq conflict to delay the impeachment vote, Republicans invoke the Iraq conflict to expedite the impeachment vote. Example: "I don't see any reason to postpone the vote. That plays right into Saddam Hussein's hands. That's what terrorists want--disruption" (Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla.).

13. Cynical anti-cynicism. While accusing Democrats of cynicism for suggesting that impeachment would undermine the war effort, Republicans argue that impeachment is the best way to honor the war effort. Example: "As those troops are engaged now, even now, defending ... the Constitution of this nation, they have a right to know that the work of the nation goes forward. And in consideration of this, it is our intention, Mr. Speaker, to begin consideration of [impeachment]" (House Majority Leader Dick Armey).

14. Circular vicarious cynicism. Unable to prove that Clinton wagged the dog, Republicans argue that the mere suspicion of dog-wagging is grounds for impeachment. Examples: "The suspicion some people have about the president's motives in this attack is itself a powerful argument for impeachment" (Armey). "Perceptions that the American president is less interested in the global consequences than in taking any action that will enable him to hold onto power [are] a further demonstration that he has dangerously compromised himself in conducting the nation's affairs, and should be impeached" (Wall Street Journal editorial).

Recent "Frame Games"

  • "The 'Coup' Bomb": William Saletan says Democrats could blow up the impeachment process by crying "coup." (posted Wednesday, Dec. 16)
  • "Escape Artists": Bill Clinton and Saddam Hussein share the same bag of tricks. (posted Wednesday, Dec. 2)