The top 20 bloviations, lies, and just plain dumb lines from U.S. government officials and politicians this year.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
Most officials intentionally say little when they speak in public about policy, but occasionally they do state something puzzling, factually wrong, hypocritical, or revealing. After watching and reading more press conferences, congressional hearings, speeches, and news reports than is healthy this year, I can confirm that 2015 was no exception.
What follows is the fifth annual list of the year’s top 20 notable quotes on foreign policy. They’re compiled in chronological order, together with a bit of context and elucidation, or simply a punch line. Note that, according to the selection criteria, only quotes from U.S. government officials are included — that means no contributions from politicians not in government, such as Ben Carson, Hillary Clinton, or Mike Huckabee, although each made jaw-dropping observations worthy of an even longer list.
No. 1: Rear Adm. John Kirby, then-spokesperson for the Department of Defense:
“I cannot give you a more specific number of how many ISIL fighters [have been killed]. We just know it’s hundreds: several hundred…we don’t have the ability to count every nose that we shwack [sic].” (Press Briefing, Department of Defense, Jan. 6, 2015)
Despite claims that the Pentagon does not do body counts, U.S. officials offered six for the Islamic State in 2015: 6,000 killed as of January (Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones), 8,500 as of March (Central Command Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin), 12,500 as of May (anonymous Pentagon official), 13,000 as of June (Air Combat Commander Gen. Hawk Carlisle), 20,000 as of October (Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman Col. Steve Warren), and 23,000 as of November (anonymous Pentagon official).
No. 2: Marie Harf, then- deputy spokesperson for the State Department:
“Clearly, we think that media organizations should have the right [to] publish what they want. Doesn’t mean they have to prove that they can. It’s obviously a decision for them to make.” (Daily Press Briefing, Department of State, Jan. 15, 2015)
That same day, FBI director James Comey wrote a letter to the New York Times, which condemned the paper for publishing comments of an anonymous al Qaeda spokesperson in the Arabian Peninsula. Comey called the Times’ decision, “both mystifying and disgusting…I fear you have lost your way and urge you to reconsider allowing your newspaper to be used by those who have murdered so many and work every day to murder more.” The gap between the U.S. government’s championing of press freedoms abroad and selectively demanding censorship at home remains as wide as ever.
No. 3: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.):
“I don’t know how this ends if you give [the Ukrainians] a defensive capability. But I know this: I will feel better.” (Bret Stephens, “From Munich to Munich,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 9, 2015)
The desired policy goal for weapons exports should never be to “feel better.”
No. 4: Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
“You know, going … from peace to war … we probably get about an A-plus on that. Getting from war to peace, I don’t know.” (Remarks and Q&A at the Texas A&M University 60th Student Conference on National Affairs, Feb. 19, 2015)
I would confidently grade the Pentagon’s war-to-peace efforts a D-minus.
No. 5: Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.):
“We’ve been fighting this radical Islamist ideology for 1,400 years.” (Hearing on Outside Perspectives on the President’s Proposed AUMF Against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, House Armed Services Committee, Feb. 26, 2015)
Likewise, in April, CIA Director John Brennan stated about the war on terror, “It’s a long war…a war that has been in existence for millennia.” You probably did not know the United States was engaged in fighting terrorism long before the United States existed.
No. 6: James Clapper, director of National Intelligence:
“Sometimes people ask me, what keeps you awake at night. I worry about the dysfunction in Washington. That does keep me awake at night.” (Charlie Rose Show, PBS, March 2, 2015)
To quote former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates in 2013, “The biggest threat to our future sits in Washington, D.C., and not someplace else.”
No. 7: John Kerry, secretary of state:
“I can say, I think safely, I don’t know any other country that has worked harder to promote human rights than the United States of America. And we are proud of that.” (Remarks at the 28th Session of the Human Rights Council, Department of State, March 2, 2015)
In a press conference in Egypt five months later, Kerry acknowledged the need to find an “imperative balance — between people’s rights to participate politically and the need to fight back against what can only be defined as a terrorist activity.” Indeed, this balance is the primary justification for ignoring human rights abuses in Egypt, among U.S. partners in the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere.
No. 8: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas):
Cruz: “The whole world’s on fire.”
3-year-old Julie Trant: “The world is on fire?!”
Cruz: “YES! Your world is on fire. But you know what? Your mommy’s here, and everyone’s here to make sure the world you grow up in is even better.” (Remarks in Barrington, New Hampshire, March 15, 2015)
Comedian Patton Oswalt later tweeted, “The little girl who was just informed by Ted Cruz that her ‘world is on fire’? That’s her supervillain origin story.”
No. 9: Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of Central Command:
“I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign [in Yemen], and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.” (Hearing on U.S. Central Command, U.S. Africa Command, and U.S. Special Operations Command Programs and Budget, Senate Armed Services Committee, March 26, 2015)
Just days later, an anonymous Pentagon official stated, “If you ask why we’re backing this…the answer you’re going to get from most people — if they were being honest — is that we weren’t going to be able to stop it.” To summarize, Obama backed the Saudi-led bombing campaign of Yemen, even though the military commander in charge of that effort did not know its goals, because the humanitarian-disaster-creating war could not be stopped. A black mark on Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
No. 10: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.):
“It was a mistake to be in Libya. We are less safe. Jihadists swim in our swimming pool now! It’s a disaster! We should have never been there!” (New Hampshire Republican Leadership Summit, April 18, 2015)
The “Not in Our Pool” Non-Intervention Doctrine.
No. 11: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.):
“On our strategy on global jihadists and terrorists, I refer them to the movie Taken…Liam Neeson. He had a line, and this is what our strategy should be: ‘We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.’” (South Carolina Freedom Summit, May 9, 2015)
The Taken Doctrine is an apt metaphor for the war on terrorism because it sounds super tough, kills bad guys initially, but there is always an even worse sequel, or two, or three.
No. 12: Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs:
“Reclamation isn’t necessarily a violation of international law, but it’s certainly violating the harmony, the feng shui, of Southeast Asia, and it’s certainly violating China’s claim to be a good neighbor and a benign and non-threatening power.” (Simon Denyer, “Tensions rise between Washington and Beijing over man-made islands,” Washington Post, May 13, 2015)
One suspects that Beijing’s political leaders have a different interpretation of the proper feng shui in the South China Sea.
No. 13: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.):
“General Dempsey, would you agree that there’re more terrorist organizations with more safe havens, with more weapons, with more capability, with more men to strike the homeland than any time since 9/11?”
Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey: “Yes.” (Hearing on the Strategy to Counter ISIL, Senate Armed Services Committee, July 7, 2015.)
Strangely, no committee member followed up to ask why this is true, or what foreign policy adjustments should be made as a consequence — questions unasked since 9/11.
No. 14: Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, then-Marine Corps commandant nominee:
“I met with Chinese officers and we didn’t agree on very much, but we had a nice lunch.” (Hearing on the nomination of Lt. Gen. Robert Neller to be General and Commandant of the Marine Corps, Senate Armed Services Committee, July 23, 2015)
An unfortunate summary of many U.S.-China military-military contacts.
No. 15: President Barack Obama:
“The one thing we should have learned from over a decade now of war in the Middle East is … that … even limited military actions end up carrying with them great costs and unintended consequences.” (Morning Edition, NPR, Aug. 10, 2015)
Just over two months before, Brennan similarly said, “We have to recognize that sometimes our engagement and direct involvement will stimulate and spur additional threats to our national security interests.” As scholar Alex Braithwaite demonstrated in a Security Studies article this year, “the deployment of troops overseas increases the likelihood of transnational terrorist attacks against the global interests of the deploying state.” U.S. leaders are acknowledging this publicly, finally.
No. 16: John Kerry, secretary of state:
Sam Stein of the Huffington Post: “As a practical matter, how does introducing more weapons to the region help stabilize it?”
Sec. Kerry: “Well, they’re defensive weapons.” (Interview with Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, Sept. 3, 2015)
Forget that there is no meaningful distinction between offensive and defensive weapons; all weapons sales destabilize the military balance between combatants. As James Clapper asserted in Senate testimony in February: “The intelligence community view is that if we were to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine that this would evoke a negative reaction from Putin and the Russians.”
No. 17: Ashton Carter, secretary of defense:
“We’re going to beat ISIL. These guys are evil. And we are, as I’ve said, the noble and they are the evil. And we are the many and they are the few. And fundamentally we’re the strong. So we will beat them.” (Remarks by Secretary Carter at a Troop Event at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, Department of Defense, Oct. 31, 2015)
Unfortunately, adversaries are not defeated just because they are evil and smaller. For example, witness the growing strength of the Taliban. As Ivan Arreguín-Toft demonstrated in How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict, between 1800 and 1998, weaker actors won 30 percent of all asymmetric wars, and fully 55 percent between 1950 and 1998.
No. 18: President Barack Obama:
“When I said no boots on the ground there, I think the American people understood generally that we’re not going to do an Iraq-style invasion of Iraq or Syria.” (This Morning, CBS News, Dec. 2, 2015)
Sixteen times Obama had vowed there would be “no boots on the ground” in Syria between August 2013 and October 2015. Then, he deployed 50 U.S. special operations forces to Syria, and up to 200 more as part of something Pentagon officials call the “Specialized Expeditionary Targeting Force.” (Not to mention 3,550 U.S. troops in Iraq, backed by 6,850 contractors.) How could the American people have misinterpreted Obama’s message?
No. 19: Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force:
“We’re in the business of killing terrorists and business is good.” (Tom Vanden Brook, “Air Force burning through bomb stockpiles striking ISIL,” USA Today, Dec. 3, 2015)
In February, Clapper estimated the size of the Islamic State was “somewhere in the range between 20 and 32,000 fighters.” In December, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter offered, “estimates in the neighborhood of 30,000.” So not only is business good — with some 17,000 Islamic State fighters killed with airstrikes this year (see quote no. 1) — it apparently is self-perpetuating and unending.
No. 20: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.):
“The Iraqis would love to have Americans die for Iraq and the Syrians would love to have Americans die for Syria. And the Gulf states are happy for us to fight and die. That’s good for everybody, but the Americans fighting and dying.” (Fox News Sunday, Fox News, Dec. 20, 2015)
Remember this quote as presidential candidates continuously call upon a, as yet, totally nonexistent Arab ground force to intervene in Iraq and Syria alongside U.S. troops.
Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images