The root of the English word 'war', werra, is Frankish-German, meaning confusion, discord, or strife. War certainly generates confusion, but that does not discredit the notion that war is organized to begin with. To some, war is immoral and to others, simply inescapable. There are also leaders who resort to war to sway the world’s attention or distract people from the more serious internal issues of their nations; issues that could ultimately taint their reputation, or even convict them.
One of those leaders is Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. The current Saudi tension with Lebanon resulting from the detainment of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri on November 4, is yet another dodged attempt to wage an (impending) war against Iran. At 32 years of age, forceful, cunning, yet lacking law enforcement, intelligence, and counterterrorism experience, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has already dragged his country into a string of embarrassing failures. In March of 2015, he led a military attack in Yemen by spearheading a civil war against Shia Houthis controlling the capital Sana’a and large areas of the country. He proceeded without a clear or well-devised strategy and without coordinating his campaign with the National Guard and/or the Ministry of Interior. Bin Salman bragged that the Houthis will be defeated in six months. Meanwhile, he departed for a two-week extravagant vacation in the Maldives where he hired artists Rhianna and Shakira for entertainment.
The total cost of his vacation reached $8 million. His lack of experience and rash overambition had transformed his military intervention in the Arab world’s poorest country into an embarrassment, costing the Saudi treasury $6 billion/month. His next fiasco occurred when he breached Sunni solidarity and took the initiative to break relations with Persian Gulf neighbor Qatar, by imposing a trade blockade and requesting a set of demands revolving around Qatar’s termination of diplomatic ties with Iran. What the prince overlooked is the fact that Qatar is a key partner in the U.S.’s war against the Islamic State (the host to 10,000 troops and 100 warplanes/drones). He has taken on a business elite used to state subsidies and extravagance by implementing radical plans to re-structure the Saudi economy, decrease its independence on oil and rely instead on foreign investment. Moreover, he defied conservatives in the religious establishment with bold steps to alleviate harsh moral codes, including ending a ban on women driving. Faced with failures, internal political unrest, and harsh criticism, MBS seemed to have no choice but to ignite the Saudi-Iran longstanding conflict, by creating a proxy war with Lebanon and denouncing its ties with Iranian-backed Hezbollah; a decision embodied in the detainment of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Saudi Arabia and forcing him to resign.
President Trump is in no better predicament. As early as May 2016, reports emerged of Russian hackers targeting the Democratic Party. In July, Wikileaks published 20,000 internal emails stolen by hackers and although U.S. Intelligence determined that the hacking was a Russian operation, the Trump campaign publicly refused to accept the findings. To the contrary, Mr. Trump created an outrage by inviting Russian hackers to target Clinton’s personal email server to “find the 30,000 emails that are missing”. However, at the time of the scandal, Trump’s then campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was accused of accepting millions of dollars for representing Russian interests in Ukraine. (Mr. Manafort ̶ who quit the Trump campaign in August, is currently being investigated by the FBI).
In October, the U.S. Intelligence released an official statement accusing Russia of the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Nevertheless, Trump insisted on refuting the findings, claiming that China could be behind the hacking. In December, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security published a report linking Russia to the hacking and in response, President Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. and imposed sanctions on Russia. In the face of Putin’s decision not to retaliate, U.S. Intelligence officials got suspicious that Russia was rather certain the sanctions will not last. Shortly after, Trump nominated Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, who was known for his close ties to Putin. The most damaging Russia scandal surfaced when Mr. Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor, was reported to have discussed the sanctions imposed by President Obama with Russian Ambassador before Trump won the elections. He resigned after 23 days on the job. Furthermore, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was accused of lying when he claimed he had no communications with the Russians, while reports emerged that he too, had met with the Russian Ambassador in July and September of 2016. On May 9, 2017, FBI Director James Comey was fired, after launching an “ongoing” investigation of the alleged Russian interference in the elections of 2016. In July, a meeting between Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was confirmed. The lawyer was believed to have damaging material on Hillary Clinton. Last but not least, Facebook discovered that politically charged advertising, believed to have been paid by the Russians, targeted Americans during the elections of 2016, indirectly swaying to vote for Trump, by supporting his plans such as new (and harsher) immigration laws. Similarly, Twitter reported shutting down about 200 accounts linked to a Russian misinformation campaign.
With mounting evidence regarding President Trump’s ties with Russia and the alleged hacking of the elections, he found himself in desperate need of a major distraction that diverts the attention from an impending and damaging scandal. War is the answer. Despite the need for a congressional authorization to conduct military action against a foreign state, President Trump evaded this process, by launching a salvo of Tomahawk cruise missiles from Navy warships against a Syrian air force base, in April 2017, without asking Congress' permission. Hours after the April attack, President Trump began threatening nuclear-armed North Korea with similar action and has been approaching the crisis with increasingly militant rhetoric ever since. Could the promises of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” be the distracting war that President Trump would use to dissolve the Russia scandal?
Back in 2000, George W. Bush started his presidency with approval ratings around 50%. Before 9/11, Bush was loathed by the bulk of the American Left, mostly for his role in the controversial 2000 election, and for his No Child Left Behind education program. Bush's intellectual capacities were questioned by the media and politicians who speculated about his IQ. A hoax report claiming Bush had the lowest IQ of any American President of the last 50 years circulated in 2001. Bush's detractors tended to focus on various linguistic errors made by him during his public speeches, (colloquially known as Bushisms). His mispronunciation of certain words was ridiculed in the media and in popular culture. However, when the attacks of 9/11 occurred and President Bush decided to wage a war against Iraq, his ratings went up to reach 90%; one of the highest ratings ever recorded by Gallup polls. The record high approval rating came in the wake of his address to the nation in which he outlined his approach both to retaliating against the terrorists of 9/11 and to mounting a concerted effort to stop global terrorism altogether. Interestingly, the second highest approval rating recorded by Gallup was received by President Harry Truman just after the end of World War II.
Wars have their “magical” way of increasing leaders’ popularity and distracting nations from more serious internal issues. Despite the commonly unsubstantiated pretexts used, wars seem to have an undeniable power to surge leaders’ approval ratings and deter people from focusing and revolting against their shortcomings, failures, and condemning actions.
One wonders whether MBS and President Trump’s attempts to ignite new wars fall in the same category?
LACD Media Coordinator