Words of Unwisdom

The year’s best worst quotes.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Once again, I spent too many hours watching press conferences, congressional hearings, congressionally-mandated reports, answers to reporters’ questions, and reading news articles last year. Most of them reveal nothing, but occasionally one comes across something unusually puzzling, hypocritical, depressing, or inspiring that stands out.  In chronological order, here are this year’s top 20 notable foreign policy comments from the U.S. government. Some of them stand alone, while others require context and elucidation. See here for the top quotes from 2011 and 2012.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: "A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the United States as well as Israel." (Senate Armed Services, confirmation hearing for Chuck Hagel to become the Secretary of Defense, Jan. 31, 2013.)

Sorry, Sen. Gillibrand. While a nuclear Iran could pose an existential threat to Israel, it simply is not to the United States — which is an ocean or two away, and has an estimated 4,650 nuclear warheads. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein: "In some respects [a drone is] a perfect assassination weapon. It can see from 17,000 to 20,000 feet up in the air, it is very precise, it can knock out a room in a building if it’s armed, it’s a very dangerous weapon. Right now we have a problem, there are all these nations that want to buy these armed drones. I’m strongly opposed to that." (Breanna Edwards, "Dianne Feinstein: Time to Set Drone Rules," Politico, March 7, 2013.)

For Sen. Feinstein, the staunchest champion of U.S. drones strikes, the only concern with armed drones is their proliferation beyond America’s borders.

Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA: "We are already developing the [offensive cyber] teams that we need, the tactics, techniques, procedures and the doctrine for how these teams would be employed with a focus on defending the nation in cyberspace. I would like to be clear that this team, this defend the nation team, is not a defensive team. This is an offensive team that the Defense Department would use to defend the nation if it were attacked in cyberspace. Thirteen of the teams that we’re creating are for that mission set alone." (Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Cyber Command and the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2014 and the Future Years Defense Program, March 12, 2013.)

Only in the defense planning world are offensive cyber operations considered defensive.

Sen. James Inhofe: "I cannot imagine a time in my life when the world has been more dangerous." (Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hearing on U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Forces Korea for FY2014, April 9, 2013.)

Seriously? In case readers can’t remember, Sen. Inhofe was born in 1934. Try re-imagining Hitler or the Cuban Missile Crisis, senator.

Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge: "We operate forward inside [China’s] 20-yard line, inside their red zone, so that they rarely come out into midfield and very, very rarely operate off the East or West Coast of the United States of America. I think the fact that we enjoy that advantage, where we don’t have to go to bed at night wondering if there’s going to be a land attack from sea, is something Americans have grown accustomed to and don’t realize that it hasn’t happened because we’re out there." (Jennifer McDermott, "Admiral: Many Unaware Sub Service Keeps Enemies from Our Shores," The Day, April 15, 2013.)

When Pentagon officials claim that the United States is not containing China, refer them to this appropriate sports metaphor.

Sen. Ron Wyden: "You cannot have strong oversight if intelligence officials don’t give you straight answers." (Ruth Marcus, "James Clapper’s ‘Least Truthful’ Answer," Washington Post, June 13, 2013.)

All I can offer in response is this:

Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: No sir.

Wyden: It does not?

Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect — but not wittingly.

(Hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, March 12, 2013.)

President Barack Obama: "When it comes to drones I gave an entire speech on this and what I have said — and this is absolutely true — is that we have put in place a whole series of measures that are unprecedented and we will continue to do so." (PBS, "Interview with President Barack Obama," Charlie Rose, June 17, 2013.)

This May 15 speech actually focused very little on drone strikes. Moreover, while it was meant to provide clarification on U.S. drone strike policies, it revealed nothing more than what was already known. The speech primarily provided a new reference that government officials could refer to when asked about U.S. targeted killing policies. Previously, whenever they were asked about drone strikes, officials — including Brennan himself — would refer to an April 2012 speech by then-White House counterterrorism czar John Brennan.

President Barack Obama: "You know, we remain the one indispensable nation. There’s a reason why, when you listen to what’s happened around Egypt and Syria, that everybody asks what the U.S. is doing. It’s because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders." (CNN, "Transcript of President Obama’s Interview on ‘New Day,’" Aug. 23, 2013.)

While Obama might want the rest of the world to perceive the United States in this manner, his foreign policy choices in 2013 regarding Egypt and Syria certainly made it seem more and more dispensable.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: "I think the world has had enough war. And I think one of the things that we have learned over the years, regardless of the region of the world, is that wars can’t resolve differences, and not in the world that we live in today, especially, that is so interconnected and so interdependent." (Department of Defense, Remarks at Malaysia’s Institute of Defence and Security, Aug. 25, 2013.)

This was Hagel’s Kumbaya moment.

Secretary of State John Kerry: "President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapon against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny."(Department of State, "Remarks on Syria," Aug. 26, 2013.)

Chemical weapons are not "the most heinous weapon" by any measurement of destructive power, lethality, or extent of human suffering. Read the classic 1979 Office of Technology Assessment primer on the effects of nuclear weapons to learn more.

Sen. Lindsay Graham: "The last place in the world you want nuclear weapons is the Mideast. Why? People over there are crazy." ("Sen. Lindsay Graham Warns of Iran-Israel War and Iranian Nuclear Attacks if U.S. does not Attack Syria," video, Sept. 4, 2013.)

That’s a slanderous characterization of all Israelis in particular, but also everyone else in the region.

Rep. Trent Franks: "It just seems that everything the president touches in foreign policy, he injects it with chaos and death." (Joel Achenbach, "Obama’s Syria Push Scrambles Hill Alliances," Washington Post, Sept. 10, 2013.)

In an apparent effort to assure "chaos and death" was furthered in the Middle East, in October, Rep. Franks introduced legislation that would have authorized Obama to undertake "the necessary and appropriate use of force against legitimate targets in Iran."

Adm. James Winnefeld: "Then there are the highly insecure authoritarian states, such as Iran, North Korea, and of course, Syria, including those who murder their own people on a large scale and those who have concluded that obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons are the best insurance policy for their regime." (Admiral Winnefeld, Remarks at the AUSA General Bernard Rogers Lecture Series, Arlington, Virginia, Sept. 18, 2013.)

Indeed, rogue states do not all have crazy, irrational leaders. As Muammar al-Qaddafi’s daughter Aisha predicted, there’s a lesson every dictator should take from her father’s fall: "Every country that has weapons of mass destruction to keep them or make more so they will not meet the same fate as Libya."

Rep. Marlin Stutzman: "We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is." (David M. Drucker, "GOP stands firm against funding bill, will link to debt ceiling fight," Washington Examiner, Oct. 3, 2013.)

A precise summary of the Tea Party’s objective for the 16-day federal government shutdown.

Michael Lumpkin, nominee to be principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low intensity conflict: "We’re not going to be able to kill our way to victory. One at a time, doing one-eaches…"  (Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hearing to consider the nominations of Mr. Michael D. Lumpkin, Honorable Jamie M. Morin, and Honorable Jo Ann Rooney, Oct. 10, 2013.)

Note that Lumpkin replaced Michael Sheehan, who championed the eliminationist counterterrorism approach: "Whack-a-Mole, in my view, works — because terrorists aren’t plastic things that pop up again. When you kill them, they don’t come back."

George Little, Pentagon press secretary: "One of the reasons that we in the Department of Defense, the U.S. military, have a very high approval rating with the American people is because we are transparent. Even when it’s bad news, quite frankly, we tend to come forward quickly and own up to it and talk about the measures we’re taking to ensure that the problem doesn’t occur again." (Department of Defense, "Department of Defense Press Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon," Nov. 12, 2013.)

The notion that the Pentagon is both forthcoming and speedy with bad news would be too absurd for The Onion.

Gen. Mark A. Welsh, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force: "What pops up when you type somebody’s name into Google? It might be worth knowing that before you nominate somebody for a key job. Some of this is common sense." ("Air Force to ‘Add More Rigor’ to Screening of Candidates for Nuclear Commander Jobs," Associated Press, Nov. 13, 2013.)

Gen. Welsh was announcing that the Air Force would more rigorously pre-screen nuclear commanders by Googling them, as of November 2013. No word yet on Facebook accounts.

Gen. Martin Dempsey: "There is hubris in the belief that war can be controlled. War punishes hubris and that is worth remembering." (Jim Garamone, "Dempsey: Military Battles Against Fiscal Uncertainty," American Forces Press Service, Nov. 16, 2013.)

Just a good line, here, and worth remembering.

Secretary of State John Kerry: "Believe it or not, notwithstanding the prominence of these events and the way that they do exactly what they’re meant to do, send terror down the spines of people everywhere, the fact remains we lose far less lives today to conflict and there is far less loss of life in war or violence anywhere in the world today than there was in the last century, even in the last half century. That’s a fact." (Department of State, "Remarks at the Overseas Security Advisory Council’s 28th Annual Briefing," Nov. 20, 2013.)

This was perhaps Secretary Kerry’s most bold act of 2013: Describing the world as it is, and not as one of inflated threats. An exceedingly rare and laudable act by a U.S. official.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: "Our interests, the United States of America’s interests, are the world’s interests." (Karen Parrish, "Hagel Arrives in Bahrain for Speech at Dialogue," American Forces Press Service, Dec. 5, 2013.)

If any other country made such a claim, U.S. officials would correctly dismiss it as a myopic and as a desperate example of projection bias.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans. Twitter: @MicahZenko

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