The Best Worst Quotes of 2016
The top 20 bloviations, lies, and just plain dumb lines from U.S. government officials this year.
What follows is the sixth annual list of the year’s top 20 notable foreign-policy quotes. They are presented in chronological order, with some context, commentary, or (attempt at) humor. Only U.S. government officials are included, which is why the many potential entries from Donald Trump (for instance, his declaration that, for foreign-policy advice, “I'm speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I've said a lot of things”) or Hillary Clinton (her pledge, hearkening to the classic 1982 film Tron, that “We need to win the battle in cyberspace”) didn’t make the cut. (Suffice to say, sifting the Trump administration’s observations down to a top 20 list will likely be a grueling task.)
What follows is the sixth annual list of the year’s top 20 notable foreign-policy quotes. They are presented in chronological order, with some context, commentary, or (attempt at) humor. Only U.S. government officials are included, which is why the many potential entries from Donald Trump (for instance, his declaration that, for foreign-policy advice, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things”) or Hillary Clinton (her pledge, hearkening to the classic 1982 film Tron, that “We need to win the battle in cyberspace”) didn’t make the cut. (Suffice to say, sifting the Trump administration’s observations down to a top 20 list will likely be a grueling task.)
No. 1: James Clapper, director of National Intelligence:
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.): “It’s the worst global threat environment now in 46 years?”
Clapper: “Well, it’s certainly the most diverse array of challenges and threats that I can recall.”
Cotton: “Why is that?”
Clapper: “I think it’s somewhat a function of the change in the bipolar system that did provide a certain stability in the world. The Soviet Union and its community, its alliance, and the West, led by the United States. And virtually all other threats were sort of subsumed in that basic bipolar contest that went on for decades and was characterized by stability. When that ended, that set off a whole group of forces, I guess, or dynamics around the world that have changed.” (Hearing on worldwide threats, Senate Armed Services Committee, Feb. 9, 2016)
(Selectively remembering the Cold War as an era of stability — and not one that was actually more unstable, conflict-prone, and less democratic — is a consistent habit when U.S. officials describe today’s global environment.)
No. 2: Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
“I will take umbrage with the notion that our military has been gutted. I stand here today a person that’s worn this uniform for 35 years. At no time in my career have I been more confident than this instant in saying we have the most powerful military on the face of the planet.” (Press briefing, Department of Defense, Feb. 9, 2016.)
(During the presidential election, the GOP unanimously took to defaming the U.S. military as ineffective and crippled, despite all demonstrable evidence to the contrary. Selva’s corrective received tremendous publicity, but he was simply stating the obvious truth.)
No. 3: Peter Cook, Pentagon spokesperson:
“As the use of military force against ISIL is authorized by the 2001 authorization for the use of military force, specifically. Just as we used it in our previous strike in Libya…. These particular fighters posed a threat to interests in the region, to Libya, and to the United States over all… we believe that this was a group that had ill intent on its mind.” (Press briefing, Department of Defense, Feb. 19, 2016.)
(The Sept. 14, 2001, Authorization for Use of Military Force is the 60-word sentence that becomes more elastic and less credible with each passing year. In 2016, the AUMF was used to justify bombing suspected Islamic State fighters in Libya almost 500 times, including for allegedly having “ill intent” on their minds.)
No. 4: Ohio Gov. John Kasich:
Debate moderator Wolf Blitzer: “Would you risk war for a regime change?”
Kasich: “Wolf, again, it would depend exactly what, you know, what was happening. What the situation was. But if there was an opportunity to remove the leader of North Korea and create stability.” (Republican Candidates Debate in Houston,, Feb. 25, 2016)
(Just imagine how a U.S.-led regime change intervention in a country with a dozen nuclear warheads would create stability.)
No. 5: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.):
“My party has gone batshit crazy.” (National Press Club, Feb. 26, 2016.)
(And that was 10 months ago!)
No. 6: Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency:
“I’m not sure that I’m at all comfortable with the hybrid threat description. I think most nation states would be really insane to take us on in conventional approach because of our superiority in conventional weapons systems. So they are going to take us on in the information space and try to control and dominate the narrative. They’re going to try to come after us in asymmetric large, or small, formations that will confuse our targeting effort. That only makes sense to counter the way we are structured and the way that we generally fight and have fought for the last 15 or 20 years. I’m sometimes anxious when I hear Russia described as creating this hybrid warfare because I think it just makes sense to counter our superior conventional capabilities.” (Hearing on worldwide threats, House Armed Services Committee, March 2, 2016)
(Sadly, this became a courageous position for a military official to express in 2016, a year when any competition from Russia — including that which is non-kinetic and non-warlike — was elevated to “hybrid warfare” status. If the label applies to Russia, it applies to all states that attempt to improve their relative international status.)
No. 7: William Bratton, NYPD commissioner:
“America is a very safe place. But we have our incidences, we know. We’ve had more than our share of mass killing, some committed by terrorists, but the vast majority committed by American citizens living here who have access to firearms. Newtown was an example of that — all those young children killed by an American citizen. So a bigger threat at the moment is our own citizens than those abroad.” (CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, CNN, March 29, 2016)
(An understatement. In 2015 within the United States, there were 15,696 homicides, and just 20 fatalities from two jihadi terror attacks, which themselves were committed by two U.S. citizens and one lawful permanent resident.)
No. 8: Col. Steve Warren, spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve:
“We release videos based on several factors to include operational security — anything that could help the enemy learn how we will attack them — and if they look really cool.” (Reddit Ask Me Anything with Colonel Steve Warren, May 6, 2016)
(And that’s how yet another generation is led to believe that war is a video game.)
No. 9: Josh Earnest, White House press secretary:
“Well, I think what is clear is, if you take a look at the president’s record, it speaks for itself. And that record includes a lot of dead terrorists.” (Press briefing, White House, June 13, 2016)
(For an administration that has admitted killing terrorists is inadequate, it has enjoyed bragging about doing so constantly.)
No. 10: John O. Brennan, director of the CIA:
“I have never seen a time when our country faced such a wide variety of threats to our national security.” (Open hearing, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, June 16, 2016)
(This has long been a mantra from U.S. intelligence officials: Foreign threats can never diminish, but only grow in size, complexity, and lethality.)
No. 11: Gen. David L. Goldfein, chief of staff of the Air Force:
“To our adversaries: It sucks to be you.” (On having operational F-35As built by Lockheed Martin, ceremony at Hill Air Force Base, Aug. 5, 2016)
(One of Lockheed Martin’s own adversaries, Boeing, received an unexpected reprieve from the president-elect when he tweeted in December: “Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” Of course, America’s battlefield adversaries can be expected to counter, in new and asymmetrical ways, whatever powerful weapons systems the U.S. military fields.)
No. 12: John Kerry, secretary of state:
“It is basic international law: Every country has a right to a safe and sovereign border, and any violation of that is unacceptable and a violation of international law; and a country has a right to defend itself.” (Press availability with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Department of State, Aug. 25, 2016)
(Unwittingly, Kerry is judging the United States in violation of international law, since it has bombed the sovereign country of Syria for 26 months. The universal principle of all great powers: “Do as I say, not as I do.”)
No. 13: President Barack Obama:
“The United States was on the right side of history when it came to the Cold War. There may have been moments, particularly here in Southeast Asia, in which, in our singular focus on defeating an expansionist and very aggressive communism, that we didn’t think through all the implications of what we did as policymakers. Certainly when you see the dropping of cluster bombs, trying to figure out how that was going to be effective — particularly since part of the job was to win over hearts and minds — how that was going to work, I think with the benefit of hindsight, we have to say that a lot of those consequences were not ones that necessarily served our interests.” (Press conference of President Obama after ASEAN Summit, Sept. 8, 2016)
(Thankfully, U.S. leaders learned their lesson and never again attempted to defeat an ideology using airpower.)
No. 14: Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.):
“No one has written me yet [about the Zika outbreak] to ask what might be the best question: Do we really need government-funded research at all?” (Julia Belluz, Trump’s budget director pick: “Do we really need government-funded research at all?” Vox, Sept. 9, 2016).
(If you are reading this on a computer powered by microchips, after tapping a touch screen, and with the content traveling over the internet, you are enjoying the benefits of government-funded research.)
No. 15: Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command:
“I cannot for the life of me imagine that our United States Air Force and our nation could have one less bomber than it currently has today. … I’m going to stick to my guns.” (Bill Carey, “Air Force Evokes Doolittle Raid in Naming B-21 the ‘Raider,’” AINonline, Sept. 19, 2016)
(The U.S. Air Force currently has 158 bombers — 62 B-1Bs, 20 B-2As, and 76 B-52Hs. That a general officer cannot imagine a world with one fewer suggests the Pentagon needs further investments in critical thinking.)
No. 16: John Kerry, secretary of state:
“It is inappropriate to be bombing the way they are. It is completely against the laws of war, it is against decency, it is against any common morality, and it is costing enormously.” (Remarks at The Atlantic and Aspen Institute, Department of State, Sept. 29, 2016)
(Can you guess if the secretary of state is referring to Russia’s indiscriminate airstrikes in Syria, or Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate airstrikes in Yemen — backed by U.S. weapons, refueling, and targeting assistance?)
No. 17: President Barack Obama:
“I think you could see, over the horizon, a situation in which, without Congress showing much interest in restraining actions with authorizations that were written really broadly, you end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.” (Jonathan Chait, “Five Days That Shaped a Presidency,” New York Magazine, Oct. 2, 2016)
(Obama apparently uses the phrase “over the horizon” to describe his current war-making powers.)
No. 18: Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
“I like to remind people who have a high level of confidence in assumptions on when, where, and how we will fight the next fight … that the Korean War took place right after some of the best strategists that we’ve ever produced as a nation decided to rebalance to Europe.” (Annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army, Oct. 5, 2016)
(A needed warning for Pentagon strategists during an ongoing and widely endorsed U.S. rebalance to Asia.)
No. 19: Unnamed senior Obama administration official:
“The strike on the funeral was really, really hard to swallow.” (Special briefing, Office of the Spokesperson, Department of State, Oct. 14, 2016).
(The “strike” was a Saudi Arabia bombing of a community hall in Sanaa, Yemen, during a funeral ceremony; more than 100 people were killed and 500 injured. Human Rights Watch determined the bombs were U.S.-manufactured GBU-12 Paveway II 500-pound bombs. Such support for the brutal Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen will be a lasting stain on Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.)
No. 20: John O. Brennan, director of the CIA:
“If we hold dear the principles of democracy, liberty, freedom, and freedom of speech and the right of people everywhere to have governments of their choosing, preventing the conduct of a free and fair and open election, devoid of interference and foreign manipulation, is something that I think the United States government, as well as the American people, would certainly want to make sure that’s going to be who we are. … That’s why I don’t think we should resort to some of the tactics and techniques that our adversaries employ against us. I think we need to remember what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for our country, our democracy, our way of life, and to engage in the skulduggery that some of our opponents and adversaries engage in, I think, is beneath this country’s greatness.” (National Public Radio, Dec. 23, 2016)
(In July, professor Dov Levin published an article in International Studies Quarterly, “When the Great Power Gets a Vote: The Effects of Great Power Electoral Interventions on Election Results.” Levin demonstrates that between 1946 and 2000, the United States and USSR/Russia intervened in foreign elections 117 times, with Washington responsible for 81 of the interventions — intentional, costly activities “done in order to help or hurt one of the sides contesting the election for the executive.” Of those 81 interventions, 65 percent were done covertly — often by CIA operatives. If there’s one thing the CIA will not abide, it is skulduggery.)
Photo credit: EVAN VUCCI/Pool/Getty Images
Correction, Jan. 3, 2017: The U.S. Air Force has 76 active and reserve B-52Hs, for a total of 158 bombers. A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that the Air Force has 140 B-52Hs.
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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