Words of Unwisdom

The year’s best worst quotes.

Once again, I spent too many hours watching press conferences, congressional hearings, congressionally-mandated reports, answers to reporters' questions, and reading news articles last year. Most of them reveal nothing, but occasionally one comes across something unusually puzzling, hypocritical, depressing, or inspiring that stands out.  In chronological order, here are this year's top 20 notable foreign policy comments from the U.S. government. Some of them stand alone, while others require context and elucidation. See here for the top quotes from 2011 and 2012.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: "A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to the United States as well as Israel." (Senate Armed Services, confirmation hearing for Chuck Hagel to become the Secretary of Defense, Jan. 31, 2013.)

Sorry, Sen. Gillibrand. While a nuclear Iran could pose an existential threat to Israel, it simply is not to the United States -- which is an ocean or two away, and has an estimated 4,650 nuclear warheads. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein: "In some respects [a drone is] a perfect assassination weapon. It can see from 17,000 to 20,000 feet up in the air, it is very precise, it can knock out a room in a building if it's armed, it's a very dangerous weapon. Right now we have a problem, there are all these nations that want to buy these armed drones. I'm strongly opposed to that." (Breanna Edwards, "Dianne Feinstein: Time to Set Drone Rules," Politico, March 7, 2013.)

For Sen. Feinstein, the staunchest champion of U.S. drones strikes, the only concern with armed drones is their proliferation beyond America's borders.

Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the NSA: "We are already developing the [offensive cyber] teams that we need, the tactics, techniques, procedures and the doctrine for how these teams would be employed with a focus on defending the nation in cyberspace. I would like to be clear that this team, this defend the nation team, is not a defensive team. This is an offensive team that the Defense Department would use to defend the nation if it were attacked in cyberspace. Thirteen of the teams that we're creating are for that mission set alone." (Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Cyber Command and the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2014 and the Future Years Defense Program, March 12, 2013.)

Only in the defense planning world are offensive cyber operations considered defensive.

Sen. James Inhofe: "I cannot imagine a time in my life when the world has been more dangerous." (Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hearing on U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Forces Korea for FY2014, April 9, 2013.)

Seriously? In case readers can't remember, Sen. Inhofe was born in 1934. Try re-imagining Hitler or the Cuban Missile Crisis, senator.

Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge: "We operate forward inside [China's] 20-yard line, inside their red zone, so that they rarely come out into midfield and very, very rarely operate off the East or West Coast of the United States of America. I think the fact that we enjoy that advantage, where we don't have to go to bed at night wondering if there's going to be a land attack from sea, is something Americans have grown accustomed to and don't realize that it hasn't happened because we're out there." (Jennifer McDermott, "Admiral: Many Unaware Sub Service Keeps Enemies from Our Shores," The Day, April 15, 2013.)

When Pentagon officials claim that the United States is not containing China, refer them to this appropriate sports metaphor.

Sen. Ron Wyden: "You cannot have strong oversight if intelligence officials don't give you straight answers." (Ruth Marcus, "James Clapper's ‘Least Truthful' Answer," Washington Post, June 13, 2013.)

All I can offer in response is this:

Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: No sir.

Wyden: It does not?

Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect -- but not wittingly.

(Hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, March 12, 2013.)

President Barack Obama: "When it comes to drones I gave an entire speech on this and what I have said -- and this is absolutely true -- is that we have put in place a whole series of measures that are unprecedented and we will continue to do so." (PBS, "Interview with President Barack Obama," Charlie Rose, June 17, 2013.)

This May 15 speech actually focused very little on drone strikes. Moreover, while it was meant to provide clarification on U.S. drone strike policies, it revealed nothing more than what was already known. The speech primarily provided a new reference that government officials could refer to when asked about U.S. targeted killing policies. Previously, whenever they were asked about drone strikes, officials -- including Brennan himself -- would refer to an April 2012 speech by then-White House counterterrorism czar John Brennan.

President Barack Obama: "You know, we remain the one indispensable nation. There's a reason why, when you listen to what's happened around Egypt and Syria, that everybody asks what the U.S. is doing. It's because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders." (CNN, "Transcript of President Obama's Interview on ‘New Day,'" Aug. 23, 2013.)

While Obama might want the rest of the world to perceive the United States in this manner, his foreign policy choices in 2013 regarding Egypt and Syria certainly made it seem more and more dispensable.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: "I think the world has had enough war. And I think one of the things that we have learned over the years, regardless of the region of the world, is that wars can't resolve differences, and not in the world that we live in today, especially, that is so interconnected and so interdependent." (Department of Defense, Remarks at Malaysia's Institute of Defence and Security, Aug. 25, 2013.)

This was Hagel's Kumbaya moment.

Secretary of State John Kerry: "President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapon against the world's most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny."(Department of State, "Remarks on Syria," Aug. 26, 2013.)

Chemical weapons are not "the most heinous weapon" by any measurement of destructive power, lethality, or extent of human suffering. Read the classic 1979 Office of Technology Assessment primer on the effects of nuclear weapons to learn more.

Sen. Lindsay Graham: "The last place in the world you want nuclear weapons is the Mideast. Why? People over there are crazy." ("Sen. Lindsay Graham Warns of Iran-Israel War and Iranian Nuclear Attacks if U.S. does not Attack Syria," video, Sept. 4, 2013.)

That's a slanderous characterization of all Israelis in particular, but also everyone else in the region.

Rep. Trent Franks: "It just seems that everything the president touches in foreign policy, he injects it with chaos and death." (Joel Achenbach, "Obama's Syria Push Scrambles Hill Alliances," Washington Post, Sept. 10, 2013.)

In an apparent effort to assure "chaos and death" was furthered in the Middle East, in October, Rep. Franks introduced legislation that would have authorized Obama to undertake "the necessary and appropriate use of force against legitimate targets in Iran."

Adm. James Winnefeld: "Then there are the highly insecure authoritarian states, such as Iran, North Korea, and of course, Syria, including those who murder their own people on a large scale and those who have concluded that obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons are the best insurance policy for their regime." (Admiral Winnefeld, Remarks at the AUSA General Bernard Rogers Lecture Series, Arlington, Virginia, Sept. 18, 2013.)

Indeed, rogue states do not all have crazy, irrational leaders. As Muammar al-Qaddafi's daughter Aisha predicted, there's a lesson every dictator should take from her father's fall: "Every country that has weapons of mass destruction to keep them or make more so they will not meet the same fate as Libya."

Rep. Marlin Stutzman: "We're not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is." (David M. Drucker, "GOP stands firm against funding bill, will link to debt ceiling fight," Washington Examiner, Oct. 3, 2013.)

A precise summary of the Tea Party's objective for the 16-day federal government shutdown.

Michael Lumpkin, nominee to be principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low intensity conflict: "We're not going to be able to kill our way to victory. One at a time, doing one-eaches..."  (Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hearing to consider the nominations of Mr. Michael D. Lumpkin, Honorable Jamie M. Morin, and Honorable Jo Ann Rooney, Oct. 10, 2013.)

Note that Lumpkin replaced Michael Sheehan, who championed the eliminationist counterterrorism approach: "Whack-a-Mole, in my view, works -- because terrorists aren't plastic things that pop up again. When you kill them, they don't come back."

George Little, Pentagon press secretary: "One of the reasons that we in the Department of Defense, the U.S. military, have a very high approval rating with the American people is because we are transparent. Even when it's bad news, quite frankly, we tend to come forward quickly and own up to it and talk about the measures we're taking to ensure that the problem doesn't occur again." (Department of Defense, "Department of Defense Press Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon," Nov. 12, 2013.)

The notion that the Pentagon is both forthcoming and speedy with bad news would be too absurd for The Onion.

Gen. Mark A. Welsh, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force: "What pops up when you type somebody's name into Google? It might be worth knowing that before you nominate somebody for a key job. Some of this is common sense." ("Air Force to ‘Add More Rigor' to Screening of Candidates for Nuclear Commander Jobs," Associated Press, Nov. 13, 2013.)

Gen. Welsh was announcing that the Air Force would more rigorously pre-screen nuclear commanders by Googling them, as of November 2013. No word yet on Facebook accounts.

Gen. Martin Dempsey: "There is hubris in the belief that war can be controlled. War punishes hubris and that is worth remembering." (Jim Garamone, "Dempsey: Military Battles Against Fiscal Uncertainty," American Forces Press Service, Nov. 16, 2013.)

Just a good line, here, and worth remembering.

Secretary of State John Kerry: "Believe it or not, notwithstanding the prominence of these events and the way that they do exactly what they're meant to do, send terror down the spines of people everywhere, the fact remains we lose far less lives today to conflict and there is far less loss of life in war or violence anywhere in the world today than there was in the last century, even in the last half century. That's a fact." (Department of State, "Remarks at the Overseas Security Advisory Council's 28th Annual Briefing," Nov. 20, 2013.)

This was perhaps Secretary Kerry's most bold act of 2013: Describing the world as it is, and not as one of inflated threats. An exceedingly rare and laudable act by a U.S. official.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: "Our interests, the United States of America's interests, are the world's interests." (Karen Parrish, "Hagel Arrives in Bahrain for Speech at Dialogue," American Forces Press Service, Dec. 5, 2013.)

If any other country made such a claim, U.S. officials would correctly dismiss it as a myopic and as a desperate example of projection bias.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


The Middle East Channel’s Best of 2013

The essential books, articles, posts -- and hip hop performances -- of the year.

It's that time of year again: my annual picks for the best books, articles, Middle East Channel posts, and -- of course -- hip hop albums of the year. While my distaste for lists is well documented, I love this opportunity each year to recognize the high quality work of so many of my colleagues.

In past years, my year-end awards have been a purely solo enterprise, but this year I reached out to a group of 40 Middle East politics specialists for nominations. Ultimately, though, what you'll find below are just my opinions: books and articles that I read and liked, on topics that I find interesting, evaluated by my own idiosyncratic criteria. And so, without further ado, here are my selections for the best of 2013 in four exciting categories: Best Books, Best Academic Journal Articles, Best Middle East Channel Articles ... and Best Hip Hop Albums.

Best Books on the Middle East

This year, I read all or part of about 65 books that could potentially qualify for this award. My criteria here are fairly straightforward: I lean strongly toward books from university presses; my personal interests incline toward the Arab world rather than Iran, Turkey, or Israel; and I tend to approach books from the perspective of my home discipline of political science.

This year's top five books:

1. Carrie Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood (Princeton University Press). Wickham's examination of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood received the most votes from the panel of experts, and I agree. Wickham's earlier book, Mobilizing Islam (2001), had perhaps the best-published analysis of the Brotherhood's recruitment and mobilization strategies. The Muslim Brotherhood presents an authoritative, deeply informed analysis of the organization's political strategies, internal cleavages, and ideological debates. It is strongest on the decades of political engagement from the 1970s through the 2000s, but struggles to explain the Brotherhood's failure in power over the last few years. Here, you can read my extended review, where I termed Wickham's book an "epitaph for the Brotherhood which might have been."

2. Raphael Lefevre, Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (Oxford University Press). Lefevre has produced a richly detailed, well-written, and sober analytical account of the history of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. He does an outstanding job of bringing together a wide range of English, French, and Arabic sources to convincingly place the Syrian Brotherhood within its local political context. Ashes of Hama is without question the best available comprehensive English-language work on Syrian Islamist politics.

3. Madawi al-Rasheed, A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia (Cambridge University Press). I thoroughly enjoyed A Most Masculine State's eclectic but comprehensive reading of gender politics in Saudi Arabia. Rasheed moves comfortably across literature, politics, education, religion, economics, and social issues to provide a masterful overview of her subject.

4. Frederic Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf (Columbia University Press). Wehrey's new book offers a theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich overview of the politics of Sunni-Shiite relations across the Gulf. His extensive research on the ground across the Gulf comes through powerfully, as does his balanced analytical sensibility. It should be required reading for anyone interested in Sunni-Shiite relations or in the regional politics of the Gulf. (Full disclosure: Sectarian Politics in the Gulf was published in the series Columbia Studies in Middle East Politics, which I edit.)

5. Adria Lawrence, Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism: Anti-Colonial Protest in the French Empire (Cambridge University Press).  Lawrence does a fascinating job of unpacking the emergence of nationalism as a unifying form of protest in the French Empire, with a particular focus on Morocco and Algeria. This is historical comparative political science done right -- an engaging read, extremely well researched, and both poses and answers a question which few would even think to ask.

Online-Only Bonus EP: Nicholas Seeley, "A Syrian Wedding." Seeley, an Amman-based journalist with long experience reporting on refugees in Jordan, has written a short, sharply observed, and beautifully written account of everyday life in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan.

The Best Academic Journal Articles

This year, for the first time, I want to acknowledge the best academic journal articles on the Middle East, even if they are too often locked behind pay walls. (Hey publishers: this would be a good time to ungate them!)

1. Lisa Wedeen, "Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria" (Critical Inquiry). Wedeen, author of the highly influential book about the former Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad's cult of personality, Ambiguities of Domination, was living in Damascus researching a new book when the Arab uprisings broke out. "Ideology and Humor in Dark Times," the first article from that project, dissects Syria's public culture and the regime's ideological project during the early uprisings. It received the most votes from the expert panel for this category, and deservedly so. Theoretically incisive and brilliantly written, from the opening bars this is clearly a Lisa Wedeen joint.

2. Salwa Ismail, "Urban Subalterns in the Arab Revolutions: Cairo and Damascus in Comparative Perspective" (Comparative Studies in Society and History). Ismail draws on her years of research on the popular quarters of both Cairo and Damascus to explain the variation in participation in the uprisings in the two contexts. She does an outstanding job of presenting the everyday concerns of the marginalized populations of these informal sectors without romanticizing them.

3. Hesham Sallam, "The Egyptian Revolution and the Politics of Histories" (PS: Political Science and Politics). In this short essay, Sallem lays out the wildly divergent historical narratives about the Egyptian uprising. While political scientists might want a single, clear coding of the case, Sallem shows that the data most certainly does not speak for itself. The article has become only more relevant with the escalating public political battle over the legacy of the revolution following Egypt's military coup.

4. Wendy Pearlman, "Emotions and Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings" (Perspectives on Politics). Pearlman challenges prevailing rationalist theoretical accounts of the Arab uprisings by focusing on the role of emotions in political mobilization. This well-written and theoretically innovative essay pushes political scientists to rethink the tiny building blocks of political behavior, and helps us to understand both the early surge of political mobilization in 2011 and the subsequent disillusionment, polarization, and turn to the dark side.

5. Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds, "Tracking the Arab Spring: Why the Modest Harvest?"(Journal of Democracy). This broad analytical overview seeks to explain the provisional outcomes of the Arab uprisings, with access to oil wealth and hereditary succession as the key explanatory variables. Their argument won't convince every scholar of the region, but it's a very useful opening gambit for the important theoretical arguments soon to unfold in the political science journals.

Best Middle East Channel articles

It's always a pleasure to go back and read through a year's worth of Middle East Channel articles. I'm proud of the consistently high quality, diversity of perspectives, rich empirical detail, and theoretical sophistication of the contributors. I'd also like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to Mary Casey, MEC's assistant editor, who has done an extraordinary job both editing these essays and producing the widely-read Middle East Channel Daily Brief.

Egypt and Syria were the dominant stories of the year, naturally, and the Middle East Channel published more than 50 articles on Egypt and more than 40 on Syria. We significantly expanded our coverage of Turkey this year, with 14 articles on Turkish politics. We kept a close eye on Iran (17 articles) Iraq (15), Yemen (13), and Tunisia (10) -- and ran at least five pieces each on Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Libya, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. (Next year, like every year, we hope to get more on Morocco and Algeria.)

I'm also very proud of several special projects which the Middle East Channel and the Project on Middle East Political Science produced this year. Last week, I wrote about "The Political Science of Syria's War," a collection of 18 short memos by leading civil war and insurgency scholars based on a workshop at George Washington University (download the collection here). And back in March, we put together the "Egypt Policy Challenge" (download it here) asking a range of scholars and policy analysts for suggestions about how to deal with difficult pre-coup Cairo.

It was hard to choose 10 articles out of some 200 high-quality contributions this year. I based my choices on a highly scientific methodology combining page views, social media shares, originality, quality of writing, enduring value, and other sciency things.

1. Nathan Brown, "Egypt's Wide State Reassembles Itself" (July 17) and Daniel Brumberg "Resurgence of Egypt's state" (July 8). Amid the enormous number of great articles about Egypt this year, Brown and Brumberg's pieces stood out for how clearly and quickly each understood the role of the Egyptian state in the military coup.

2. Charles Lister, "Syria's Opposition Beyond Good Guys and Bad Guys" (Sept. 9). Lister's sharply observed, no-nonsense look at the distribution of military power among the various Syrian opposition factions came at a particularly crucial time in the policy debate.

3. Elizabeth Dickinson, "Syria's Gulf Brigades" (Dec. 8) and "Shaping the Syrian Conflict from Kuwait" (Dec. 4). This series of articles, co-sponsored by MEC and the Brookings Institution, broke important new ground in reporting the role of private groups and individuals in the Gulf in financing the Syrian insurgency.

4. Toby Mathiessen, "Sectarian Gulf vs. the Arab Spring" (Oct. 8). This article, based on Mathiessen's excellent short book, Sectarian Gulf, sharply analyzed the place of sectarianism in the survival strategies of the Gulf monarchies.

5. Jeremy Shapiro, "The Qatar Problem" (Aug. 28) and "How the U.S. Saw Syria's War" (with Miriam Estrin, Dec. 8). Since leaving the State Department for Brookings, Shapiro has written some really outstanding analytical pieces for the Middle East Channel. "The Qatar Problem", a remarkably frank critique of Doha's ambiguous policies, was the single most read MEC article this year. Meanwhile, "How the U.S. Saw Syria's War" concludes with perhaps the best advice I've seen in a while for academics hoping to influence policy debates.

6. Fanar Haddad, "The language of anti-Shi'ism" (Aug. 9). Haddad, author of the outstanding book, Sectarianism in Iraq, masterfully laid out here the historical evolution of sectarian language in Iraq and across the region. A highly original and really compelling essay.

7. Lisel Hintz, "The Might of the Pen(guin) in Turkey's Protests" (June 10). Hintz's discussion of the political culture of the Turkish protests this summer was one of the most entertaining and informative of all the fascinating pieces I read about the Gezi Park clashes.

8. Stacey Philbrick Yadav, "Best Friends Forever for Yemen's Revolutionaries?" (March 19). Yadav's essay offered a really fascinating discussion of the changing perspectives, relationships, and experiences of Yemen's young protestors.

9. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, "Iran's Pragmatic Turn" (Sept. 12). Tabaar does one of the best jobs I've seen of linking Iran's fluid domestic political scene with President Hassan Rouhani's foreign policy gambits.

10. Alanna van Antwerp, "Post-Soviet Lessons for Egypt" (July 2). At a time when many Egyptians insisted that their experience was unique and defied comparison, van Antwerp demonstrated the value of cross-regional comparison by considering which of the Color Revolutions Egypt most resembled ... and how those cases turned out (hint: not well).

Hip Hop Performances of the Year

And finally, for those who care, every year I take this opportunity to step out of my Middle East politics lane and offer my thoughts on the year in hip hop. Kendrick Lamar indisputably owned 2013, with his year-defining verse on "Control," his BET Cypher follow-up slap tucking a certain sensitive rapper back into his pajama clothes, and his commanding series of guest spots showing up everybody from A$AP Rocky and Big Sean to Eminem and Jay-Z. As promised, Kendrick raised the bar high and murdered his competition. He did not, however, release an album this year (a chronological misfortune which the Grammy Awards happily decided to ignore, but I can't).

If not King Kendrick, then who earns album of the year? A lot of the highly anticipated albums by the heavyweights disappointed: Kanye West's Yeezus made a brash, original statement but was just too abrasive and ultimately just not very good; Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail was better than most reviewers allowed, but had a "by the numbers" feel to it; Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP II felt stale despite its entertaining wordplay (I prefer his competitive guest spots with Slaughterhouse). Nor did the next tier do much better: Drake's Nothing Was the Same was actually exactly the same as his other work, instantly forgettable; Lil Wayne's I Am Not a Human Being II mercifully disappeared without a trace; Big Sean's sophomore effort Hall of Fame only showed how little he has to say at this point; and I'm not interested in trying to learn what a Macklemore is.

There were a few decent albums that I wanted to like more than I did. A$AP Rocky's Long Live A$AP just slipped into the 2013 window, and had two of the year's standout tracks ("Train" and "F***ing Problem"), but tellingly both of those songs were made by the guests. Prisoner of Conscious by Talib Kweli and The Gifted by Wale were smart but inconsistent, and I had a hard time remembering a single distinct track or turn of phrase five minutes after listening to them. I was excited about B.o.B's Underground Luxury when he promised on "Paper Route" to get political and say things which might piss off his publicist and get him in trouble with the government ... but instead he spends most of the album treading water with endless love letters to his money.

J. Cole's Born Sinner therefore beats out those three contenders out to be my 2013 runner-up. Born Sinner was an improvement over his rookie album, and had flashes of real brilliance. It had too many tedious stretches, though, and would have done better to replace some of the filler with tracks he offloaded to the mixtapes (plus, he messed up big time by not giving Kendrick a verse on "Forbidden Fruit"). Cole did provide the best non-Kendrick moment of the year, though, when Nas jumped onto his "Let Nas Down" beat to offer some career advice and a strong co-sign. He also pulled off a near-perfect head fake by dropping an agonizing "Control" response track which seemed to threaten war against Kendrick ... only to show up in L.A. a few days later joking around backstage with his buddy.

And so, somehow, my choice for the best overall album of the year goes to Pusha T for My Name is My Name. Pusha T has been a monster for years, from the early years with the Clipse to his emergence as the ace in Kanye's GOOD Music posse. My Name is My Name took a long time to complete, like seemingly all of his projects, and not every track worked. But My Name is My Name stood out from the competition this year with its consistency, intensity, and sharp lyrics. It featured really standout tracks like "Numbers on the Boards" and "King Push." Plus, on Nosetalgia he became the only rapper all year to hold his own on a track with Kendrick. Congratulations, King Push!

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for AEG