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The Year in Quotes

The 20 most puzzling, hypocritical, and revealing things said about U.S. foreign policy in 2012.

Understanding U.S. foreign policy is not particularly easy, but you can learn quite a bit from press conferences, congressional hearings, congressionally mandated reports, and answers to reporters' questions. Often, I come across passages that are puzzling, audacious, hypocritical, revealing, or inspiring. In chronological order, here are this year's top 20 notable foreign policy comments from the U.S. government -- with a little context from your columnist.

1. Michael A. Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict: "Al Qaeda wasn't as good as we thought they were on 9/11. Quite frankly, we, the American people, were asleep at the switch, the U.S. government, prior to 9/11. So an organization that wasn't that good looked really great on 9/11." (Andrew Tilghman, "U.S. Misjudged al-Qaida Capabilities," Air Force Times, Feb. 7, 2012.)

2. Department of State: "We call on all governments to declare or reaffirm their commitment not to conduct explosive nuclear tests, and encourage all States that have not done so to sign and ratify the Treaty." ( Media Note: CTBTO Prepcom Fifteenth Anniversary, Office of the Spokesperson, Feb. 17, 2012.)

Of course, one of the countries that the State Department is encouraging to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is the United States.

3. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "I am not a military strategist, but I think I know enough to say air strikes [in Somalia] would not be a good idea and we have absolutely no reason to believe anyone, certainly not the United States, is considering that." (Press Availability on the London Conference, Feb. 23, 2012.)

Hours after America's chief diplomat said this, U.S. Joint Special Operation Command conducted a drone strike -- confirmed by two U.S. officials -- against vehicles in a convoy in southern Somalia, killing between four and seven suspected militants.

4. Attorney General Eric Holder: "An individual's interest in making sure that the government does not target him erroneously could not be more significant." ("Remarks at Northwestern University School of Law," March 5, 2012.)

Holder offered this remarkable observation during a landmark speech that provided the Obama administration's justification for why U.S. citizens can be killed, and why secret Executive Branch discussions are sufficient to deprive a citizen of his Sixth Amendment right to due process.

5. White House spokesperson Jay Carney: "We have eyes, we have visibility into the program, and we would know if and when Iran made a -- what's called a ‘breakout move' towards acquiring a weapon. So we have the capacity to judge that as the regime, the sanctions regime, continues to be implemented. (Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, Aug. 10, 2012.)

Months earlier, a senior administration official stated: "I have zero doubt that if Iran attempted a [nuclear weapons] breakout, we'd see it." In 2013, if pressure builds in Tel Aviv or Washington for the United States to attack Iran's nuclear program, reporters would do well to recall these statements and ask officials if Iran has made a "breakout move."

6. Representative Tom Graves: "Does the federal government have the ability to kill a U.S. citizen on United States soil or just overseas?"

Director of the FBI Robert Muller: "I have to go back. Uh, I'm not certain whether that was addressed or not.... I am going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice." (Hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, March 7, 2012.)

Mueller has been the FBI director since the week before Sept. 11, 2001, and has been intimately involved in virtually every significant counterterrorism policy decision since. If he does not know if U.S. citizens can be killed by the federal government within the United States, it is hard to imagine who would. The Obama administration has never confirmed if the federal government can kill U.S. citizens at home, though Holder claimed that there are no limits to "the geographic scope of our ability to use force."

7. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta: "Any government that kills its own people loses its legitimacy as a government." (Statement on Syria before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 7, 2012.)

Later, during this hearing, Senator James Webb asked Panetta if his standard would have applied to the Chinese government's violent crackdown against Chinese citizens around Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989. Panetta replied: "My personal view would be that that was the case there."

8. Sen. Charles Schumer: "Unlike President Bush, [Obama] said the drones could go across the border into Pakistan." (ABC News, "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," March 11, 2012.)

Actually, President George W. Bush authorized CIA drone strikes across the border into Pakistan roughly 45 times during his presidency -- the first in June 2004.

9. Representative Adam Smith: "I mean, imagine in your own community if every day you had foreign troops rolling down the streets as if they own the place." (House Committee on Armed Services, March 20, 2012.)

To quote President Bush regarding a different U.S. military occupation in April 2004, "[Iraqis are] not happy they're occupied. I wouldn't be happy if I were occupied either," and in May 2004, "Who wants to be occupied? Nobody wants to be occupied."

10. Department of State Legal Advisor Harold Hongju Koh: "I have never changed my mind [regarding targeted killings]. Not from before I was in the government -- or after." (Tara McKelvey, "Interview with Harold Koh, Obama's Defender of Drone Strikes," Daily Beast, April 8, 2012.)

On the faculty of Yale Law School for a quarter century before joining the State Department, Koh in 2002 said the problem with the Bush administration's "legally undeclared war" was that it blurred the distinction between enemy combatants and other nonstate actors: "What factual showing will demonstrate that they had warlike intentions against us and who sees that evidence before any action is taken?'' Apparently, Koh is satisfied with the facts he has seen to justify the Obama administration's targeted killings -- and believes that only the Executive Branch should see such evidence.

11. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker: "Attacks planned and launched from Pakistan target civilians, international forces and Afghan security forces, and we have the right under the United Nations charter to respond to those attacks -- and we will." (Dion Nissenbaum, Taliban Hit Tempers Obama's Afghan Visit, Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2012.)

This is an interpretation of the U.N. Charter that few legal scholars agree with, and not one that has been made by any other U.S. official. Article 51 of the charter allows for the "inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations," which "shall be immediately reported to the Security Council."

12. Jake Tapper: "There are reports that some of the rebels in Syria are affiliated with al Qaida, are extremist. Are you not concerned at all that arming these rebel groups in Syria could end up having a horrible blowback effect?"

Sen. John McCain: "Well, I don't know what horrible blowback effect there would be, besides the fact that extremists may take it over." (ABC News, "This Week," May 6, 2012.)

13. Senator Lindsey Graham: "The existential threat we are facing from a rogue regime [Iran] that denies the right of Israel to exist, that has killed over 2,000 Americans in Iraq, that has been a proxy for evil throughout the planet." (Senate Legislative Session, May 17, 2012.)

It was less remarkable that Graham contended that a country that spends 3 percent of what the United States does on its military and has no nuclear weapons threatens the existence of America, than it was that his comments went unnoticed by the Washington press corps or pundits.

14. Question: "After warning against a North Korea third nuclear test, North Korea officials yesterday said they are going to strengthen its nuclear deterrent. Do you think this is going to [be] a vicious circle?"

Victoria Nuland: "Frankly, I'm not sure what they mean by that. So obviously there's nothing to deter in this case, so I'm not sure what they actually had in mind." (U.S. Department of State Daily Briefing, May 22, 2012.)

What the North Koreans might have in mind are the nuclear-weapons powers that surround their country or the almost 60-year armistice that it has with its neighbor to the south.

15. Senator McCain: "I think for example the elimination of [suspected al Qaeda members] is perfectly unclassified information and is important information." (CBS News, "CBS This Morning," June 7, 2012.)

McCain was asked if the White House should tout the killing of a suspected al Qaeda official. The previous day he had stated the opposite on the Senate floor regarding the revelation of an Obama administration kill list: "Such disclosures can only undermine similar ongoing or future operations and, in this sense, compromise national security. For this reason, regardless of how politically useful these leaks may be to the president, they have to stop."

16. Secretary Clinton: "Some believe that when it comes to counterterrorism, the end always justifies the means; that torture, abuse, the suspension of civil liberties -- no measure is too extreme in the name of keeping our citizens safe. But unfortunately, this view is short-sighted and wrong. When nations violate human rights and undermine the rule of law, even in the pursuit of terrorists, it feeds radicalization, gives propaganda tools to the extremists, and ultimately undermines our efforts." (Opening Remarks at the Global Counterterrorism Forum, June 7, 2012.)

17. Senator Graham: "The biggest bipartisan accomplishment we've had in recent memory is to destroy the Defense Department." (Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, June 13, 2012.)

As proof of this destruction, Congress recently authorized the Pentagon somewhere between $525 billion [House] and $527.5 billion [Senate] for its base budget for fiscal year 2013, an inflation-adjusted cut of less than 3 percent from $531 billion last year.

18. Government Accountability Office: "These include concerns about privacy relating to the collection and use of surveillance data. Currently, no federal agency has specific statutory responsibility to regulate privacy matters relating to [drones]."(Use in the National Airspace System and the Role of the Department of Homeland Security, July 19, 2012.)

For maps of where drones are currently authorized to fly in the United States by the Federal Aviation Admimistration, see here from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

19. Special Operations Task Force South East, Afghanistan, Commander Mike Hayes: "Nations are really good at starting wars and really bad at ending them." (Maria Abi-Habib, "Seals Battle for Hearts, Minds, Paychecks," Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2012.)

An insight worth bearing in mind before the next war.

20. Representative Paul Ryan: "Peace through strength is not just a slogan. It's not just something we say, it's what we do. It's our doctrine." (Mitchell Landsberg, "Paul Ryan Fires up Colorado Crowd with Focus on Military," Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2012.)

This statement perfectly captures the foreign policy of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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