Stephen M. Walt

Defending the indefensible: a how-to guide

Powerful states often do bad things. When they do, government officials and sympathizers inevitably try to defend their conduct, even when those actions are clearly wrong or obviously counterproductive. This is called being an "apologist," although people who do this rarely apologize for much of anything. Some readers out there may aspire to careers in ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Powerful states often do bad things. When they do, government officials and sympathizers inevitably try to defend their conduct, even when those actions are clearly wrong or obviously counterproductive. This is called being an "apologist," although people who do this rarely apologize for much of anything.

Some readers out there may aspire to careers in foreign policy, and you may be called upon to perform these duties as part of your professional obligations. Moreover, all of us need to be able to spot the rhetorical ploys that governments use to justify their own misconduct. To help students prepare for future acts of diplomatic casuistry, and to raise public consciousness about these tactics, I offer as a public service this handy 21-step guide: "How to Defend the Indefensible and Get Away With It." The connection to recent events is obvious, but such practices are commonplace in many countries and widely practiced by non-state actors as well.

Here are my 21 handy talking-points when you need to apply the whitewash:

1. We didn’t do it! (Denials usually don’t work, but it’s worth a try).

2. We know you think we did it but we aren’t admitting anything.

3. Actually, maybe we did do something but not what we are accused of doing.

4. Ok, we did it but it wasn’t that bad ("waterboarding isn’t really torture, you know").

5. Well, maybe it was pretty bad but it was justified or necessary. (We only torture terrorists, or suspected terrorists, or people who might know a terrorist…")

6. What we did was really quite restrained, when you consider how powerful we really are. I mean, we could have done something even worse.

7. Besides, what we did was technically legal under some interpretations of international law (or at least as our lawyers interpret the law as it applies to us.)

8. Don’t forget: the other side is much worse. In fact, they’re evil. Really.

9. Plus, they started it.

10. And remember: We are the good guys. We are not morally equivalent to the bad guys no matter what we did. Only morally obtuse, misguided critics could fail to see this fundamental distinction between Them and Us.

11. The results may have been imperfect, but our intentions were noble. (Invading Iraq may have resulted in tens of thousands of dead and wounded and millions of refugees, but we meant well.)

12. We have to do things like this to maintain our credibility. You don’t want to encourage those bad guys, do you?

13. Especially because the only language the other side understands is force.

14. In fact, it was imperative to teach them a lesson. For the Nth time.

15. If we hadn’t done this to them they would undoubtedly have done something even worse to us. Well, maybe not. But who could take that chance?  

16. In fact, no responsible government could have acted otherwise in the face of such provocation.

17. Plus, we had no choice. What we did may have been awful, but all other policy options had failed and/or nothing else would have worked.

18. It’s a tough world out there and Serious People understand that sometimes you have to do these things. Only ignorant idealists, terrorist sympathizers, craven appeasers and/or treasonous liberals would question our actions.

19. In fact, whatever we did will be worth it eventually, and someday the rest of the world will thank us.

20. We are the victims of a double-standard. Other states do the same things (or worse) and nobody complains about them. What we did was therefore permissible.

21. And if you keep criticizing us, we’ll get really upset and then we might do something really crazy. You don’t want that, do you?

Repeat as necessary.

Powerful states often do bad things. When they do, government officials and sympathizers inevitably try to defend their conduct, even when those actions are clearly wrong or obviously counterproductive. This is called being an "apologist," although people who do this rarely apologize for much of anything.

Some readers out there may aspire to careers in foreign policy, and you may be called upon to perform these duties as part of your professional obligations. Moreover, all of us need to be able to spot the rhetorical ploys that governments use to justify their own misconduct. To help students prepare for future acts of diplomatic casuistry, and to raise public consciousness about these tactics, I offer as a public service this handy 21-step guide: "How to Defend the Indefensible and Get Away With It." The connection to recent events is obvious, but such practices are commonplace in many countries and widely practiced by non-state actors as well.

Here are my 21 handy talking-points when you need to apply the whitewash:

1. We didn’t do it! (Denials usually don’t work, but it’s worth a try).

2. We know you think we did it but we aren’t admitting anything.

3. Actually, maybe we did do something but not what we are accused of doing.

4. Ok, we did it but it wasn’t that bad ("waterboarding isn’t really torture, you know").

5. Well, maybe it was pretty bad but it was justified or necessary. (We only torture terrorists, or suspected terrorists, or people who might know a terrorist…")

6. What we did was really quite restrained, when you consider how powerful we really are. I mean, we could have done something even worse.

7. Besides, what we did was technically legal under some interpretations of international law (or at least as our lawyers interpret the law as it applies to us.)

8. Don’t forget: the other side is much worse. In fact, they’re evil. Really.

9. Plus, they started it.

10. And remember: We are the good guys. We are not morally equivalent to the bad guys no matter what we did. Only morally obtuse, misguided critics could fail to see this fundamental distinction between Them and Us.

11. The results may have been imperfect, but our intentions were noble. (Invading Iraq may have resulted in tens of thousands of dead and wounded and millions of refugees, but we meant well.)

12. We have to do things like this to maintain our credibility. You don’t want to encourage those bad guys, do you?

13. Especially because the only language the other side understands is force.

14. In fact, it was imperative to teach them a lesson. For the Nth time.

15. If we hadn’t done this to them they would undoubtedly have done something even worse to us. Well, maybe not. But who could take that chance?  

16. In fact, no responsible government could have acted otherwise in the face of such provocation.

17. Plus, we had no choice. What we did may have been awful, but all other policy options had failed and/or nothing else would have worked.

18. It’s a tough world out there and Serious People understand that sometimes you have to do these things. Only ignorant idealists, terrorist sympathizers, craven appeasers and/or treasonous liberals would question our actions.

19. In fact, whatever we did will be worth it eventually, and someday the rest of the world will thank us.

20. We are the victims of a double-standard. Other states do the same things (or worse) and nobody complains about them. What we did was therefore permissible.

21. And if you keep criticizing us, we’ll get really upset and then we might do something really crazy. You don’t want that, do you?

Repeat as necessary.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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