War, McCarthyism And Tony Abbott's 'Wag The Dog' Moment


Wag the Dog would have to be one of my favourite films. In a broad sense it depicts the increasing degree to which political manipulation is possible in an age of mass media.

It speaks eerily to a number of political machinations that have been observable after September 11, despite having been produced before this time.

The screenplay, based on a novel, centres on the re-election campaign of an incumbent US president who is embroiled in a child sex scandal less than a month before re-election.

The president's advisors and minders attempt to divert public attention from the scandal by planting seeds of concern with the media about possible international danger or war.

Eventually, the president's minders take their suggestions a step further by engaging a Hollywood producer to stage a war which is filmed and broadcast across the nation. The president is cast as strong leader. His polling improves.

There is a significant body of research showing that the popularity of leaders increases when they respond to danger or war in a climate of voter fear.

In such climates, voting populations often look to the strong and decisive rule of the father from government, relinquishing requirements for consultation or engagement in return for the outcome of feeling safe and protected (Lakoff 2002).

Firm courses of action like war, in the face of fear, lead to increased popularity. That is not to suggest for a moment that real world leaders 'cast and create' a disaster such as in Wag the Dog.

I wouldn't suggest (although others have) that Bush somehow hoped for or engineered September 11, just as nobody would suggest that the events of MH17 or northern Iraq were wished for or invented by Abbott.

However, it is another thing altogether to recognise that such events come pregnant with political opportunity. While such leaders may not create a problem in the literal sense, leaders can in effect create a problem or control how a problem is understood in the sense of a representation (Bacchi 1999); that is, politicians can and do construct the way a problem is represented to their advantage.

The re-election of George W. Bush is a perfect case in point. Coming to power on the back of a highly contentious election result, and, according to Bugliosi, a suspect Supreme Court ruling, Bush struggled to gain legitimacy.

Following 9/11 Bush's leadership was effectively cemented. Bush's construction of the events or representation of the problem was one of the core reasons he was able to appear productive and effective as a leader.

According to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States of America, 9/11 was perpetrated by citizens from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Lebanon.

There were no public reprisals against these countries.

Instead, Bush chose to represent the problem as abstract 'terrorism' against which he needed to wage 'wars on terror' in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This week's feigned outrage at Senator Sue Lines for suggesting that Abbott was deflecting attention from domestic policy were something to behold.

Lines' actions in pointing to the Emperor's new clothes may not have been politically smart or sophisticated; however her comments were not new information.

Lines commented that issues of domestic security were being used to divert domestic attention from the budget. She did not say that the security issues were not real. She did not say that action or response was unwarranted. However respondents to her comments represented her intent in this way.

There is a certain religious zeal that is brought to bear upon critics of war, or those who ask that we look at the broader picture, or those who suggest pecuniary interests or conspiracies or political interests influence decisions to go to war.

In the United States especially, war questioners or detractors are cast as unpatriotic and as disrespectful of individual military personnel and their families.

They are represented as infantilised, unrealistic, immature, inexperienced, and not of the 'real world'.

Such criticisms create an almost McCarthyesque environment in which to speak at all against the dominant paradigm is to sin, rather than to be acting ethically.

All manner of shameful accusations were lumped upon those who questioned whether Iraq indeed had weapons of mass destruction, and whether the US was conveniently advancing other interests by choosing Iraq and Afghanistan as targets for reprisal.

When no weapons of mass destruction were found (one presumes after hearty efforts), the construction of 'the problem' was changed. Our attention was turned to the brutality of Saddam Hussein, a leader who had previously been 'represented' as aligned with US interests.

There has been a McCarthyesque character to criticisms of Lines and Christine Milne over the past week. Morrison's comments about Lines in particular had a nasty gendered flavour about them.

He labelled her a muppet (implying childishness and infantilisation) and said the debate should be 'returned to the adults', as though Lines were a child, unworthy of sitting at the grown ups table.

Infantilisation of women has been a common tactic for sidelining us; for suggesting we shouldn't be playing with the boys.

Morrison did not critique Lines' argument on its merits; in a sense it would be impossible to argue against something that most politicians know to be true, but which cannot be proven.

Instead he reverted to put downs through a sexist stereotype. All Lines did was point out that Tony Abbott has been experiencing his Wag the Dog moment.

Tony Abbott's Wag the Dog moment, and his poll improvements, arrived after the crash of MH17. Due to a number of random factors, including the presence of Australian passengers on MH17, the notoriety of MH17 passengers on their way to Melbourne for an international conference, and the delicate relationships amongst a number of other nations, Australia was able to wiggle its way into a significant international role regarding the crash.

That his advisors and colleagues were fully aware of the opportunity present in this event is manifest in the adoption of overt military leadership language by both Abbott and Bishop.

They were dedicated to 'bringing our people home'. They spoke about 'our people on the ground' in the 'war zone' of Ukraine. Abbott was being constructed as a strong leader in a time of war – and his polling figures improved, despite a domestic budget situation that was causing real electoral pain.

It was probably hard for Abbott and his advisors to guesstimate how long the 'leader in war time' persona could be maintained. But then the events of northern Iraq came along.

Debate has been all but censored in parliament over choices that are thrusting Australia towards war. It is not a question of whether the Kurds in northern Iraq should be offered assistance – it is a question, as Christine Milne has explained – of critical decisions being debated and taken in a fashion that is inclusive and considered.

To my mind, asking the hard questions is the role of our parliament; exploring the risks and benefits, obligations and consequences that come with taking decisions that have deep moral implications.

I have been fully aware for decades, through friends, of the dangers faced by Kurds in northern Iraq; it is unconscionable to leave people without protection.

However, I would have thought the most patriotic thing for Australia's leaders at this time would be to share information, where possible, with the parliament and public; to make their case strongly for whichever form of action they think best; to encourage open debate; and to bring the people with them – especially given the loss of trust that occurred after our last arguably failed escapade into Iraq.

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