The Best Worst Quotes of 2014
The top 20 bloviations, lies, and just plain dumb lines from U.S. government officials and politicians this year.
What a year it’s been. In 2014, we discovered new purported threats (Ebola/Islamic State), militarily intervened in yet another country (Syria), and got reacquainted with old interventions (extending combat operations in Afghanistan and redeploying troops to Iraq). In thousands of press conferences, congressional hearings, speeches, and news reports, officials and policymakers offered some especially hypocritical, factually wrong, puzzling, depressing, or revealing statements about U.S. foreign-policy conduct.
In chronological order, here are the top 20 notable foreign-policy comments from U.S. government officials and politicians in 2014. Each comes with some editorial context and elucidation — or a punch line. (Oh, and if you’re looking to fact-check the historical record or see just how inaccurate officials routinely are, check out the top quotes from 2011, 2012, and 2013.)
- Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.): “The world is literally about to blow up.” (“Graham Says World ‘Literally About to Blow Up’,” Roll Call, January 28, 2014.)
- Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.): “I’m obviously not very happy with what’s happening in Iraq, and I’ve been very clear that I thought the withdrawal from Iraq was one of the biggest mistakes, I think, historically that’ll be shown that the United States has made in modern foreign policy.” (“Al-Qaeda’s Resurgence in Iraq: A Threat to U.S. Interests,” House Foreign Affairs Committee, February 5, 2014.)
The representative from Illinois is partially correct, in that one of the biggest mistakes in foreign-policy history did involve Iraq, an estimated 140,000 Iraqi and 4,425 U.S. troops’ lives lost, and $815 billion in direct taxpayer costs (and counting).
- Anne Patterson, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs: “But let me stress that Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear weapon is an existential threat to us and it’s an existential threat to, critically, Iran’s neighbors.” (“United States Security Policy and Defense Posture in the Middle East,” House Armed Services Committee, February 11, 2014.)
For God’s sake, let’s be clear what “existential” means: the ability to survive as a country. This conventional wisdom must be countered every time a senior official makes it: While a nuclear Iran could pose an existential threat to Israel, it simply is not to the United States — which is 6,500 miles away, and has an estimated 4,650 nuclear warheads.
- Secretary of State John Kerry: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” (“Face the Nation,” CBS, March 2, 2014.)
Hear, hear. And surely any country that behaved in such a fashion, in the 21st century (let’s say, starting on March 21, 2003) would have the self-awareness to acknowledge that it violated precisely the same norm that it now demands others adhere to. Right?
- CIA Director John Brennan: “As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into, you know, Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth.” (“CIA Director Brennan Denies Hacking Allegations,” Council on Foreign Relations, March 11, 2014.)
Ahem. An investigation by the CIA’s inspector general found that five agency officers had, in fact, hacked into a computer network used by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staffers while they were researching and writing the study of the agency’s detention and interrogation program — the so-called Torture Report. However, a review panel — appointed by Brennan and composed of three CIA officers and two external members — recommended that the officers responsible not be punished, claiming that their actions were lawful and at the request of Brennan in some cases.
- President Barack Obama: “When a typhoon hits the Philippines or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help. The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come.” (Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony, White House, May 28, 2014.)
This was the year that Obama wholeheartedly adopted this rhetoric, despite all evidence to the contrary. Let’s be clear: America is the world’s indispensable nation only when it is in America’s narrow national interests to act as such, which is extremely selectively and rarely, making the concept meaningless. By December, he would even claim, “Even our critics, when they get into trouble they’re calling us.”
- Marie Harf, State Department spokeswoman: “We don’t keep people detained in this country for years on end without trial or release. That’s just not how we do things.” (Daily Press Briefing, U.S. Department of State, June 9, 2014.)
- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): “We are now facing an existential threat [in Iraq and Syria] to the security of the United States of America…. This has turned into one of the most serious threats to American security in recent history.” (“Morning Joe,” MSNBC, June 13, 2014.)
Yes, the Islamic State are some bad dudes, but they are, of course, not an existential threat to the United States. Rather, to quote former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from a May interview: “The greatest national security threat to this country is the two square miles that encompasses the Capitol building and the White House.”
- Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.): “People from Yemen, Iran, Iraq and other terrorist nations are making their way up through America’s southern border because they see that it’s a green light…. Not only people with potentially terrorist activities, but also very dangerous weapons are going to cross our border in addition to very dangerous drugs, and also life-threatening diseases, potentially including Ebola and other diseases like that.” (“Michele Bachmann on the Direction of the Nation and Andrew McCarthy on Why the President Should Be Impeached,” Ohio Christian University’s School of Business and Government and Dave Garrison, “The Faith and Liberty Talk Show,” July 23, 2014.)
We will all miss Rep. Bachmann. Among other things, she once claimed that “there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.” Now, she will have time to read them. When asked about this purported cross-border threat during a Sept. 10 congressional hearing, Francis X. Taylor, undersecretary for intelligence and analysis in the Department of Homeland Security, stated that he was “unaware of any specific credible threat to the U.S. homeland.”
- President Barack Obama: “We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks.” (Press Conference by the President, White House, August 1, 2014.)
During a Dec. 9 interview, Obama stated, “Some of the tactics that were written about in the Senate Intelligence Report were brutal and, as I’ve said before, constituted torture in my mind.” The following day, White House spokesman Josh Earnest responded to a question about whether Obama accepts the Department of Justice’s finding that no prosecutable crimes had been committed by the CIA, by stating: “That is the way that our criminal justice system works.” So, in sum: Yeah, we did illegal things, but no one is going to jail for it.
- President Barack Obama: “What I’ve indicated is that I don’t want to be in the business of being the Iraqi air force.” (Thomas L. Friedman, “President Obama Talks to Thomas L. Friedman About Iraq, Putin and Israel,” New York Times, August 8, 2014.)
Sorry, Obama: That’s exactly what the United States is doing. U.S. air power is at the beck and call of the Iraqi government. On Dec. 18, Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, stated, “When the Iraqi security forces plan operations, conduct those operations, we plan to support them, as I’ve described here today in terms of delivering those precision fires.” Similarly, in October, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Adm. John Kirby stated that U.S. military action was based on the “needs that they’re [Iraqi security forces] expressing that they have for our air support.” Iraq took delivery of three dozen F-16s in the fall, but because there is no Iraqi air base secure enough to fly them from, they are actually stationed in Arizona.
- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: “They [Islamic State] are an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else…. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything.” (Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey in the Pentagon Briefing Room, U.S. Department of Defense, August 21, 2014.)
Well, at least he didn’t say existential. But this trumped-up threat inflation was only matched by another Chicken Little Hagel claim: “Cyber threats, which are relatively new, but are just as real and deadly and lethal as anything we’ve ever dealt with.”
- Col. Steve Warren, Pentagon spokesman: “With every terrorist that we kill from the air, that is one less terrorist on the ground.” (Claudette Roulo, “Airstrikes in Iraq ‘Tremendously Effective,’ Pentagon Official Says,” U.S. Department of Defense, September 8, 2014.)
That’s just math, people! But wait: Despite all the terrorists that the United States kills from the air, they somehow continue to multiply on the ground.
- Secretary of State John Kerry: “The United States doesn’t ever trade its concern for human rights for any other objective.” (Joint Press Availability with Secretary John Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, U.S. Department of State, September 13, 2014.)
Kerry said this in Cairo after official visits to our good friends in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Turkey. Maybe he hasn’t read his own department’s report on these countries’ abysmal human rights records?
- Secretary of State John Kerry: “We’re not planning to nor do we want to nor have we armed Islamic folks in Syria. The United States doesn’t do that and we’ve opposed it.” (“U.S. Strategy on ISIL,” Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, September 17, 2014.)
Two days later, Congress passed Public Law 113-164 authorizing the provision of “training, equipment, supplies, and sustainment, to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition and other appropriately vetted Syrian groups and individuals.” These “folks” are, in fact, Muslim.
- Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon spokesperson: “When you drop a bomb from the air, something blows up, somebody, you know, gets stopped, and you have a tactical effect.” (Department of Defense Press Briefing by Rear Admiral Kirby in the Pentagon Briefing Room, U.S. Department of Defense, October 8, 2014.)
To describe the killing of someone as having been “stopped” is a particularly antiseptic term. Might I suggest “cancelled,” “de-respirated,” or “shuffled off this mortal coil”?
- Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.): “We also have an infectious disease, Ebola. And we don’t know what we don’t know about Ebola. We think we know it’s a virus, but we don’t know, is it mutating? Can it be spread by airborne?” (“Meet Me At The Diner,” WCRS, October 21, 2014.)
Welcome to the unknown knowns of Ebola. Rep. Duncan not only incorrectly portrayed how Ebola is spread, but contradicted information posted on his own website.
- Secretary of State John Kerry: “I don’t know who these anonymous people are who keep getting quoted in things.” (Sixth Annual Washington Ideas Forum, U.S. Department of State, October 30, 2014.)
Paging Yogi Berra…
- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: “We can’t predict anything in the world and in life, but we do know that the unpredictable is the predictable. It is the one thing that we know is coming.” (Remarks by Secretary Hagel During a Troop Event at the National Training Center, U.S. Department of Defense, November 16, 2014.)
Mr. Berra, please pick up the white courtesy phone.
- Josh Earnest, White House spokesman: “It’s difficult to imagine — and I’m happy to be proven wrong — but it’s difficult to imagine any other country in the world going to the lengths that this country has to have a public reckoning or a public detailed accounting of our shortcomings.” (Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, White House, December 10, 2014.)
Earnest was referring to the partially declassified executive summary of the Torture Report. For just a few examples to prove Earnest wrong, see: South Africa’s Commission of Truth and Reconciliation (1995-2002); the Netherlands’ report — Dossier Srebrenica (2002) — on the role of the Dutch army in the 1995 genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina; Brazil’s National Truth Commission report (2014); Germany’s two truth commissions in 1992 and 1995; Sweden’s investigation into the treatment of the Roma population (2010); Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification (1997-1999); Bolivia’s National Commission for Investigation for Forced Disappearances (1982-1984); or Ecuador’s Truth Commission to Impede Impunity (2007-2009).
Thanks to all for your comments and thoughts on this column in 2014. Have a happy new year, and please send along your top quotes throughout 2015.
Steve Pope/Getty Images
Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.