In the film The Wizard of Oz, the title character puts on quite a spectacle to provide a little "shock and awe" to Dorothy and her cohort while they're in the Emerald City. It turns out that it's all just a show, as the little man commands the four to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," after Dorothy's dog Toto reveals the charade by pulling aside the drape. This story bears a strange resemblance to the wars in the Middle East today, where leaders attempt to distract their public from domestic strife at home by pointing at imaginary threats from abroad.
What is happening? It's something international relations scholars have labeled "diversionary theory of conflict." The theory owes its origins to the writings of sociologists Georg Simmel and Lewis Coser, who determined that unity within a group could be generated with strife directed at outsiders.
Political science proponents of the theory find that leaders can distract the public from political and economic problems at home with a war abroad. Such a conflict would generate a "rally 'round the flag" effect with a surge of patriotism that militarized disputes often create, making the ruler more popular than before the internal troubles began.
Academics, reporters, authors and even Hollywood latched onto the argument, as much for its conspiracy theory undertones as its simplicity. Larry Beinert's novel American Hero has America's president manufacturing a war to overcome national problems, contending that President George Herbert Walker Bush did as much from 1990 to 1991 when America went to war with Iraq over Kuwait in the midst of a recession. Films like Michael Moore's Canadian Bacon spoofed America generating a war with its northern neighbor to overcome economic and environmental problems.
And Wag the Dog, with Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman, had the Oval Office inventing a faux war with Albania to cover indiscretions involving the U.S. president and a young Camp Fire girl. The media dubbed it the "Wag the Dog theory" as reporters covering the Monica Lewinsky scandal watched the film while breaking the news that President Bill Clinton had authorized missile strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan.
But even as the "Wag the Dog theory" became a household term, political scientists (like Jack Levy in a chapter of the Handbook of War Studies) started chipping away at the hypothesis. First, it vastly over-predicted conflict. If the theory is on target, and given the number of political problems, economic recessions and embarrassing scandals, there should be a lot more war in the international system.
Second, it was so ambiguously designed as to be useless in offering any useful predictions. For example, who would be the target of a besieged leader's distraction? Third, it assumes a leader is seeking complete unity at home, ignoring other motives for such a "weapon of mass distraction." Fourth, it was almost exclusively applied to Western leaders, like the American president and British prime minister (or France's Nicolas Sarkozy?); its application elsewhere was almost entirely ignored.
In my own research on the diversionary theory of conflict, I found that the problems stemmed from students of international politics focusing on the Hollywood caricature instead of the original theory. Coser's sociological work, for example, is frequently given a single line of recognition — and then dismissed in favor of the more salacious details of the conflict and leader's unpopularity. A closer analysis of his work generated a more refined application of the theory to internal and external policymaking.
Coser's writings are actually more about a ruler developing a domestic scapegoat for problems at home. In his 1956 book The Functions of Social Conflict, he rejected the idea that internal harmony can or should be achieved. Rather, internal conflict serves a useful purpose for the leader. Besieged leaders finger a foreign foe and then connect that opponent to an internal rival. And that external enemy is an entity the audience at home will recognize as such. But international war is not the goal; such a move would be foolhardy in the face of pressing domestic problems. Rather, the ruler is engaging in cheap talk, a war of words, to eliminate opposition at home.
The Middle East represents a good non-Western field to test the improved hypothesis.
My quantitative and qualitative analysis of Middle East leaders revealed an increased penchant for leaders in a tight spot at home to increase the level of threat abroad or even initiate a very limited show of force. But war is actually less likely to occur under such circumstances. That's more the realm of the ruler who has solidified his or her interior position. More recent studies of mine have used this revised diversionary theory of "conflict" to explain Iraqi politicians making pronouncements against their electoral rivals, tying enemies to Iran, Syria or even Saudi Arabia. It also explains the harsh language Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reserved for Israel this past decade, to outflank and isolate his moderate and conservative opponents at home.
So how does this all apply to the "Arab Spring," a time for longstanding leaders to see their fiefdoms whisked away?
Encircled rulers facing revolutionaries have strong incentives to employ this modified diversionary theory of conflict. They would be foolish to fight a war abroad with their throne at stake. But a sly sovereign could blame the unrest on foreign sources. This would have the added benefit of distracting the public, ostracizing opponents as foreign agents or dupes and garnering that valuable patriotic boost from followers and fence-sitters that would enable the potentate to maintain the leadership position.
In Tunisia and Egypt, neither Zine El Abidine Ben Ali nor Hosni Mubarak made much of an attempt to play the diversionary theory card. But in Libya, which sits between the two, dictator Moammar Gadhafi tried his hand. He claimed that the terrorist group al-Qaeda was to blame for the civil war in his country.
"What is happening now is not the people's power. It is international terrorism led by al-Qaeda," Gadhafi said in a television interview with CBC.
"Bin Laden ... this is the enemy who is manipulating people. Do not be swayed by Bin Laden," Gadhafi said in another broadcast. "It is obvious now that this issue is run by al-Qaeda. Those armed youngsters, our children, are incited by people who are wanted by America and the Western world."
This was no isolated statement. "Al-Qaeda's cells attacked security forces and took over their weapons," he said the following week. "How did that all begin? Small, sleeper al-Qaeda cells."
As the situation became more desperate for Gadhafi, so did his level of rhetoric; he expanded his foreign target list to include Western countries. "Mussa Ibrahim (a Libyan government spokesman) told a press conference that Western powers demanded regime change in Libya in order to grab rich oil, while al Qaida terrorists were attempting to turn Libya into 'another Afghanistan,'" reported the Xinhua News Agency.
Such reports were dismissed in the West. BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner was reported by his service as saying that "blaming al-Qaeda is a cheap shot as the whole international jihadist movement has been left largely sidelined by the current popular uprisings across the Middle East, in which religion has played almost no part."
Gadhafi's ploy may be a first for the diversionary theory of conflict, having an international audience as well as a domestic one. By tying internal targets to a terror network, Gadhafi hoped to undercut any Western support for the revolutionaries. Clearly, Gadhafi referred to the high stakes in the oil business in those pronouncements. "He also lobbed a warning at foreign powers, saying, 'If the situation gets worse, the oil flow will stop,'" according to the CBC story.
It's not just Libya's leader who is trying to distract the people from revolution at home by blaming a foreign enemy. "Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh delivered a fiery speech blaming the United States for destabilizing the Arab world, saying the anti-government protests in his capital were being run by the White House," according to the Los Angeles Times. "'The events from Tunisia to Oman are a storm orchestrated from Tel Aviv and under Washington's supervision,' Saleh said. 'What is taking place on Yemen's streets is just a copycat attempt,'" he said.
Al-Arabiya quoted him saying the protesters are "led from outside" and are in the pay of Zionists, a traditional Middle Eastern diversionary bogeyman.
The United States responded sharply. "We don't think scapegoating will be the kind of response that the people of Yemen or the people in other countries will find adequate," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
"The protests in Yemen are not the product of external conspiracies. President Saleh knows better. His people deserve a better response," tweeted State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
These developments mirror events in Iraqi electoral politics from several years ago, where several Shiite politicians used this improved diversionary theory of conflict to drum up opposition to the United States as a way to secure votes, stealing support from moderate politicians aligned with the United States.
The theory may have been generated in America and applied to its leaders. But increasingly, it is the United States that finds itself the new target of harsh rhetoric from the Middle East as a way for embattled politicians to find friends at home. Luckily, much of these words are part of a political theater, with a focus on internal matters instead of fomenting external war.
It may seem silly for a leader in trouble to pick a verbal fight with a more powerful opponent, but as the Wizard of Oz once put it, "You're confusing courage with wisdom."