Was Netanyahu's speech to Congress a 'wag the dog' moment for elections?

But the term 'wag the dog' isn't limited to an Israeli prime minister facing a tough election. It's also been invoked, recently, to describe Iowa's 2016 biofuel politics and Vladimir Putin's surprise disappearance. 

Ariel Schalit/AP
An Orthodox Jewish man walks past a billboard of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday, a day ahead of legislative elections. Netanyahu is seeking his fourth term as prime minister.

“Wag the dog.” To advocate for, or create, a distraction that diverts attention from a more pressing political problem.

The expression comes from the phrase “from the tail wagging the dog,” which has been in use for more than a century. It was famously popularized by the 1997 movie of the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. (It’s currently a contender in Washingtonian magazine’s competition to determine “the most Washington movie ever.”) In the film, a Hollywood producer and a political adviser manufacture a war to help a sex scandal-ridden president win an election.

Since then, its most frequent use has been in the national-security realm, most often by critics of President George W. Bush’s controversial decision to invade Iraq. New York Times liberal columnist Paul Krugman brought it back again this week in accusing Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of trying to boost his reelection chances by warning a joint session of Congress of the extremely grave threat that Netanyahu contends Iran poses. “Why did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel feel the need to wag the dog in Washington?” Krugman asked. “For that was, of course, what he was doing in his anti-Iran speech to Congress.”

And Jacqueline Leo, editor-in-chief of Fiscal Times, used the phrase in discussing the need for a “great propaganda campaign” that can counter the Islamic State’s recruiting of followers for its violent extremist campaign. “To those who think ISIS is the cat’s meow, it’s time to Wag the Dog,” Leo wrote. 

But the use of “wag the dog” has been expanding into other realms. Paul Driessen, a columnist for the conservative website Townhall.com, used it to criticize top Iowa Republicans for recently imploring 2016 White House hopefuls to support continued mandates for the use of ethanol, the grain-based gasoline additive. He cited a litany of grievances against biofuels, from the toll they inflict on cars to their role in recent political scandals. “Republican presidential candidates who surrendered to a gaggle of Iowa corn growers and renewable fuel interests need to reflect long and hard on these ethanol and corruption realities, and the broader national interest,” Driessen wrote in a column titled,“Crony Biofuel Politics Wag the Dog.”

And in The Business Standard, Neil Macfarquhar in Moscow observed the furor surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent mysterious absence from the public eye: “Of course, the ‘wag-the-dog’ grandfather of all the conspiracy theories surfaced as well, that Putin disappeared on purpose to distract everyone from the problems and economic pressures piling up around them.”

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Decoder Voices. 

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