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.


National Security

Wanted: A Few Good Leaders

Fewer veterans are serving in high office in the United States. It's no coincidence that America is going off the rails.

Looking back at a decade of war -- with $3 trillion spent pursuing victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, millions of our citizens plucked from home for combat deployments, and more than 50,000 of our brethren wounded or killed in action -- Americans need to ask themselves a single blunt question: Are our current military and civilian leaders fit to lead us in the next war?

There's a reason our national experience since 9/11 has been mixed with confusion, pride, trying developments, ruinous expense, and fleeting successes. We have lots of leaders but a national deficit in true leadership. Two trends have brought us to this crisis.

First, the vast majority of our current leaders have only a theoretical, intellectual, and abstract knowledge of the military and war -- not an experiential, visceral, and personal understanding. The proportion of our key decision-makers who have served in the military and have personal experience with defense is in steady decline.

Before 1993, nearly every modern president had served on active duty in uniform, most in wartime, and a few were war heroes. At one point, 77 percent of Congress were veterans. Come 2013, veterans will make up a mere 19 percent of Congress -- and many among this 19 percent have "military service" in their record purely because they sought to avoid the draft and Vietnam combat; they volunteered between 1966 and 1975 for what was then safe, part-time service at home in the National Guard or Reserve.

People who have not served in uniform or combat are often ill equipped to understand how conflict and armies work (or, frequently, how they don't), how war moves to capricious rhythms, and how war plans last only until first contact with the enemy.

Consider the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 -- perhaps the most high-stakes example of this concept.

President John F. Kennedy was a Navy veteran, and his brush with war left him without illusions. He kept his own counsel during the showdown with the Soviets precisely because he had been to war and had his boat sunk in combat. Kennedy was not overawed by the cigar-chomping general with a constellation of stars on his collar who disdainfully told him, "Sir, you have few options on Cuba except ‘surgical strikes' followed by invasion."

JFK knew that using the words "precision" and "bombing" in the same sentence was nonsense. We now know that if he had taken the advice of Gen. Curtis LeMay and others, Soviet commanders at sea and on the island would likely have ordered the use of tactical nuclear weapons -- potentially escalating the crisis beyond the point of no return. Kennedy had the instincts and experience to discern the right course and hold his military to proper account in that unforgiving moment.

Being a veteran does not inoculate someone from making stupid or reckless decisions about war -- not at all. But an executive who's never been to war needs first to be brutally honest with himself -- to know what he does not know -- and second, to surround himself with veterans whom he trusts. The Cuban missile crisis turned out well because Kennedy had served in uniform and he had trusted and experienced advisors who were veterans and could provide a check on the generals; he could walk down the hall to ask Kenny O'Donnell or Dave Powers, two former Air Corps bombardiers from World War II, "Is this the real deal or B.S.?"

Two other cases have dominated national security policy since 9/11.

The most conspicuous example of this phenomenon came in the run-up to the Iraq war. Four combat innocents, "The Quartet" (Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Blair) -- phony toughs, two of whom had actively gamed the system to avoid Vietnam combat -- unleashed the dogs of war. And those same men actively excluded the one cabinet member with the requisite military experience, Colin Powell, because he could have judged both the civilian and military realities and cast doubt over the entire dubious enterprise.

The second example is, of course, Afghanistan, where civilian decision-makers demonstrated disinterest and failed to act with timely boldness. In 2002, and again in 2009, after al Qaeda's nest had been obliterated and the Taliban bloodied, most American forces could have withdrawn and been replaced by ad hoc Special Forces missions taking out targets to deliver hurt and fear upon the Taliban.

Instead, we went all in; funding and embarking on the lunacy of nation-building among an ancient tribal people, all without any cold, hard, cost-benefit assessment, leading to America's longest war without any compelling American strategic interest at stake. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "To fight out a war you must believe in something and want something with all your might." From this Civil War veteran later turned civilian leader, wisdom worth mulling on Afghanistan.

The point is not that the military is always or even usually right -- frequently its first inclination or recommendation is off the mark, inadequate, or undesirable. And that's why civilian leaders need the ability to rigorously assess plans, forging a solid civil-military partnership, all the while holding the military to account. ("And general, what's our Special Forces option if things suddenly go pear-shaped in Libya?")

A decision-maker who's never seen combat should lean on smart folks who have -- think veterans like Jim Webb, Bing West, or George Mitchell -- to credibly say what many people might not want to hear. The odds of creative alternatives and better outcomes resulting would go up astronomically.

Second, true leadership requires a dedication to others.

One of the key elements missing among today's leaders is "other-centeredness." We have leaders who are fixated on their own ambitions, their next career move, and narrow interests, not on the common good. True leaders look out for others at their own expense, at their own peril. In the Marines, leaders are judged by their ability to generate results and take care of their Marines.

Unfortunately, recent administrations have seen presidents and top officials who have marvelously polished resumes, unbridled fascination with themselves, unmatched ability to elbow up to rostrums and self-promote. They try to distract us from their dinner mint-thin real accomplishments, only to reveal their lack of mettle as they learn on the job, leaving pronounced blunders in their wake. Yale scholar William Deresiewicz called such leaders skilled "hoop jumpers" -- they are merely accomplished at appearing accomplished.

The flawed business of appointing or electing people who check all the right boxes, collect all the right "merit badges," attend all the right schools, whose accomplishments are merely personal, is costly and unsound. Leadership is a trait, not a position.

How can we tell when a leader is made of the right stuff?

Every individual has two personalities: their normal one and the one that appears under stress. If we study a potential leader's past, we should hunt for evidence that they experienced or put themselves into vulnerable situations, under stress, and they performed exceptionally well, took risks, and even risked themselves, their careers, or their futures for others. Combat is the most obvious caldron where "skin in the game," bravery, moral courage, and heroism frequently abound. But it's not the only one.

Lincoln was never in the military, and neither was FDR. But both had been tested in other ways and proved to be exceptional commanders in wartime.

The late Sen. Daniel Inouye, who lay in state last week in the Capitol, embodied all the traits of a true leader. He spent 50 years honorably representing the people of Hawaii in Congress, received the Medal of Honor for acts of extraordinary combat heroism that cost him his arm while fighting the Nazis, desegregated the House cafeteria by walking in with a black man, and shepherded a remote island territory into statehood. Senator Inouye demonstrated true leadership at every stage of his life.

The right leaders can be hard to find, but they do exist.

Consider former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a possible nominee to be the next secretary of defense. Hagel was born of middle class stock not privilege, he was tried by combat in Vietnam, he rose to become a successful business executive, senator, and educator. Thirty years ago, as the deputy in President Reagan's Veteran's Administration, Hagel displayed moral courage by supporting the now-treasured design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Faced with bitter opposition and told he would be fired for his position, Hagel replied: "I serve at the pleasure of the president. If he fires me for supporting a design ... so be it." There are few better former Army sergeants available to go toe-to-toe with the Pentagon brass and wrestle the best future for our defense from the status quo. A Hagel tenure could be a signature success of the Obama administration.

We need to attract heavy hitters for leadership roles who are canny but proven selfless leaders from among our communities, bipartisan in their DNA, able to play hardball when hardball is the game, but also sensitive to the needs and realities faced by ordinary Americans.

We need leaders who act boldly, dare greatly, and risk losing their own comfortable futures by their decisions. We need to radically change the nature of our national leadership so as to ensure that we are not truant to America's true promise.

Win McNamee/Getty Images