How to Justify Any Policy, No Matter How Bad It Might Be

A handy 10-step guide to defending yourself, your country, or your boss.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Politics can be a rough business, and even well-intentioned leaders sometimes do very bad things or suffer embarrassing policy failures. And when they do, they have to find some way to excuse their behavior and defend their decisions — to offer their supporters convincing arguments to justify actions that would otherwise sound foolish or reprehensible.

Be forewarned: If you’re an ambitious public policy wannabe or an up-and-coming policy wonk, your future boss will probably ask you to do something like this someday. You might even become a press secretary or public spokesman, and have to spin bad policy into good PR on a daily basis. Or maybe you’ll just want to be able to defend your favorite country, political group, or politician in a heated dinner-party conversation, and you are looking for convincing ways to make what they are doing seem acceptable. 

Whatever your circumstances might be, here’s a simple 10-step program for excusing bad behavior. (It may also come in handy in your personal life, if you’re not good at resisting temptation or making sound decisions.)

Step 1: "It’s a lie. It never happened."

When accused of bad behavior, the first instinct of many politicians (or their supporters) is denial. Bill Clinton told us he "never had sex" with "that woman" (Monica Lewinsky), and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria at first denied that chemical weapons had even been used. Similarly, when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked him about the NSA’s domestic surveillance activities, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s first response was to deny it was happening, a lie he later described as the "least untruthful" statement he felt he could make. Step 1 is tempting for an obvious reason: When a bald-faced lie works, the problem goes away.

Step 2: Blame someone else.

If you can’t hide what happened, blame it on someone else. This line of defense has at least two variants. The first option is to acknowledge that wrongdoing occurred, but pin the blame on one’s opponents. Once the use of chemical weapons was confirmed in Syria, for example, Assad’s defenders tried to pin the blame on the regime’s opponents. Similarly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan now seems to think any criticism of his government or domestic political setback is the result of some sort of foreign conspiracy.  

The second variation is to admit that somebody did something wrong, but pin the blame on subordinates. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie claims he knew nothing — "Nothing!" — about Bridgegate, while George W. Bush administration officials claimed that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were just unauthorized acts by low-level enlisted personnel. If you successfully make someone else the fall guy, the people at the top can skate away scot-free.

Step 3: "OK, they did something bad. But they didn’t do it on purpose." 

If you can’t deny what happened or pin the blame on someone else, the next fallback is to admit there was wrongdoing but that it wasn’t intentional. You might try arguing that no one could have foreseen the negative consequences of a particular policy decision and therefore no one should be blamed for its failure. Or one can simply assert that the bad stuff was just a regrettable by-product of an otherwise successful policy; the proverbial broken eggs that make up the omelette. This is how the U.S. government handles civilian casualties from drone strikes; they are "collateral damage" that we did not intend to cause and are therefore excusable.

Step 4: "They had no choice."   

If you can’t deny the facts or the intentions, then the next line of defense is claim that whoever you are defending had to do it because the alternatives were worse, or because others forced the person to act in harsh or otherwise regrettable ways.

After 9/11, for example, Donald Rumsfeld tried to deflect criticism of the U.S. response by saying that "responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they’re innocent civilians or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of al Qaeda and the Taliban." And sometimes this line of defense might be correct: Those who defend Harry Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons against Japan in 1945 invariably argue that a conventional invasion of Japan’s home islands would have been even more destructive for Japanese and Americans alike. 

Step 5: "It was for the greater good." 

A close cousin of Step 4 is to argue that the alleged misconduct was part of a noble project and therefore "worth it." Thus, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously defended the U.S.-led sanctions program against Iraq — sanctions that may have helped cause a half-million excess Iraqi deaths — by saying the U.S. government believed "they were worth it."

A corollary of this approach is to assert that the passage of time will vindicate the policies that are now being questioned, because any "bad things" they did will eventually lead to lots of wonderful benefits down the road. Those who still defend the Bush administration’s illegal and incompetent assault on Iraq like to argue that sooner or later conditions in the Middle East will eventually improve, and that the removal of Saddam Hussein will one day be seen as a key step in the process. Just stick around until 2025 … or maybe 2050.

Step 6: "Everybody does it, and our opponents do it even more than we do."

Bad behavior is sometimes excused by the claim that it’s just "business as usual" and that those being criticized are being singled out or held to an unfair standard. Or you can take this strategy one step further, and defend your side’s misconduct by claiming that your opponents are far worse and that any means are acceptable in order to vanquish them. This line of defense is how the Bush administration justified torture, extraordinary rendition, and the other excesses of the early war on terror. By portraying al Qaeda as a uniquely evil threat, the harshest of measures were judged to be entirely appropriate.

Step 7: Emphasize restraint. (aka, "It could have been worse.")

This technique is an obvious way to defend any really powerful state or politician. If they do something that looks bad but didn’t go all-out, then defend them by pointing out all the bad things they could have done but didn’t. For example, defenders of drone warfare often point out that these weapons are more reliable and precise than large-scale air attacks would be. In other words, they are suggesting that the United States should be praised for not using all the power at its disposal, instead of condemned for misusing the power it chose to employ. Of course, it’s a bit like an adulterer begging for forgiveness by claiming he didn’t cheat as often as he could have.

I wonder if Christie will try a similar defense: "Hey, we only closed a couple of lanes of traffic; we didn’t shut down the whole damn bridge!" If that works, maybe Assad will defend his conduct by pointing out that his regime didn’t use most of the chemical weapons in their arsenal.

Step 8:  Assert a special status.

All governments tend to believe that their own actions — however misguided, foolish, or heinous — are justified by their own unique history, geopolitical circumstances, or global responsibilities. Thus, the United States refused to sign the land mine treaty or the convention on the International Criminal Court because it claimed its role as the chief protector of global security might be compromised if it agreed to these constraints. But this line of argument is a slippery slope. Once you maintain that you’re immune from some of the rules, why stop there? It’s also a defense that may convince those who are already favorably inclined, but it’s not likely to cut much ice with more serious opponents.

Step 9: Play the guilt card and apologize.

In some cases, you may find yourself having to defend a politician or a policy that really was morally dubious. But as countless celebrity scandals have taught us, sometimes the perpetrators can get away with it if they make a sufficiently convincing show of contrition. For example, the Obama administration has gone to some lengths to portray the president as "agonizing" over the White House "kill list." What’s the not-so-hidden message here? "We might be killing some innocent people in distant countries, but we feel really bad about it. So get off our backs."

Step 10:  The Rumsfeld Defense.

When all else fails, you can always fall back on the classic Rumsfeld Defense: "Stuff happens." Things may not have worked out as intended, and a lot of innocent people may be in dire straits as a result, but hey: making policy is an uncertain affair, and sometimes the beneficiaries of our precision-guided tough love aren’t appropriately grateful. But that’s not our fault; there are always some unknown unknowns out there and nobody’s perfect. Sue me.  

The Rumsfeld Defense seems pretty lame, but notice that he kept his job for another four years and was never prosecuted for any of the offenses for which he might have been charged. Instead, the Obama White House requested that he (and others) be granted immunity from prosecution. Even a lame alibi sometimes has value.

* * *

This simple list should be useful anytime you have to excuse, justify, or otherwise defend a failed or ethically-questionable policy. It’s not foolproof, but don’t despair. Hardly anybody remembers what happened after a couple of decades goes by, so you can always lie back and wait for the revisionist moment to kick in. If you live long enough, you’ll have ample opportunities to rewrite the historical record and get your favorite country, political faction, or discredited leader off the hook. Heck, I bet George W. Bush even starts to look like a better leader once enough historical fairy dust gets sprinkled in the eyes of future generations.

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

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