Daniel W. Drezner

Will the Senator from the state of half-assed thinking please go sit in a corner?

Will the Senator from the state of half-assed thinking please go sit in a corner?

Since this week is George W. Bush retrospective week, it’s worth pondering some of the possible counterfactuals of that administration. For example, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld played a pretty important role in the foreign policy clusterf**ks that dominated the first six years of that administration. You’d think that an alternative SecDef would have mattered. 

It’s worth considering the plausible counterfactual, however. Remember that Rumsfeld wasn’t Bush’s first choice for the job. Initially, Bush interviewed Senator Dan Coats of Indiana. According to Karl Rove, however, "after a couple of face-to-face meetings, the president-elect was concerned whether Coats had the management skill and toughness to do the job." So maybe a counterfactual of Secretary of Defense Coats would have led to a worse outcome!

I bring this up because I watched Dan Coats on ABC’s This Week, and it was … quite a performance. If we go to the transcript, here’s his first intervention, on whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be Mirandized: 

COATS: I think we should stay with enemy combatant until we find out for sure whether or not there was a link to foreign terrorist organizations.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Even though he’s a citizen?

COATS: Even though he’s a citizen. There have been exceptions to this before with the public safety issue of course on Miranda rights. But also the fact that he’s traveled back to his hometown which is a Muslim area, could have been radicalized back there.

STEPHANOPOULOS: That was his brother though.

Now you have to hand it to Senator Coats here — inside of ten seconds, he makes a dubious statement about the law and a factually incorrect statement. It wasn’t like these were obscure facts, either, like the capital of Chechnya or something. So, great prep work, Senator Coats’ staff!

This is just a prelude, however, to Coats’ most noteworthy intervention: 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator, what do you do though if no connection to a specific group is found? Instead we just find that these young men were inspired by al Qaeda, but not directed. That’s almost impossible to find.

COATS: Well it is. And that’s the reality of the world we’re now living in. Because we not only face terrorism from abroad, that is, planned and coordinated. We face these lone wolves or these others or whoever gathers together that has a vengeance or a demented mind or who has been kind of radicalized through over the internet or through a mosque or whatever. We’re going to continue to have to understand that is a threat to America also.

That’s why we all need to be engaged in not only looking out for this type of thing, but helping identify and see, whether these loners, is there a kid in the classroom that’s just

RADDATZ: He wasn’t a loner. He wasn’t a loner (emphasis added).

Now in fairness to Senator Coats, it does seem as though the Tsarnaevs were lone wolves without any direct connection to overseas terrorist networks. Still, he got his brothers mixed up again — as Martha Raddatz points out, there’s no evidence that the younger Tsarnaev was a loner. 

But let’s skip the preliminaries and get to the more basic point. Is Dan Coats suggesting that high schools profile which kids are loners and put them onto a "possible terrorist watch list"? I’m picturing this kind of exercise at a typical high school: 

PRINCIPAL:  So, what about Jeremy? 

TEACHER #1: Well, his grades are pretty good, but he does seem to stare out of the window a lot. And I keep having to yell at him to remove his sunglasses and earbuds in math class.

PRINCIPAL:  Hmmm … does he socialize with the other students?

GUIDANCE COUNSELOR #1: Well, I saw him get into a pretty big argument with another kid once over whether Marjorie Tyrell or Daenerys Targaryen was hotter in Game of Thrones. It got pretty heated…

PRINCIPAL: We can’t take any chances after Boston. Put him on the watchlist. Oh, and it’s totally Marjorie.

TEACHER #2:  SAY WHAT??!! It’s obviously Cersei!!

As someone with first-hand experience of loneliness in high school, I’d wager that this kind of exercise would be the dumbest f**king idea in the history of counterterrorism. This sort of half-assed thinking would multiply the amount of alienation and disaffectedness among America’s teens. 

Now, this isn’t the first time Dan Coats has sounded like a dumbass on a morning show. So perhaps, as a public service, someone should suggest that the next time a television show asks him to be on the air to talk homeland security, he go sit in the corner and read up on Type I and Type II errors — here’s a good Cliffs Notes version for the Senator. 

Am I missing anything?