How to Justify Any Policy, No Matter How Bad It Might Be

A handy 10-step guide to defending yourself, your country, or your boss.

Politics can be a rough business, and even well-intentioned leaders sometimes do very bad things or suffer embarrassing policy failures. And when they do, they have to find some way to excuse their behavior and defend their decisions -- to offer their supporters convincing arguments to justify actions that would otherwise sound foolish or reprehensible.

Be forewarned: If you're an ambitious public policy wannabe or an up-and-coming policy wonk, your future boss will probably ask you to do something like this someday. You might even become a press secretary or public spokesman, and have to spin bad policy into good PR on a daily basis. Or maybe you'll just want to be able to defend your favorite country, political group, or politician in a heated dinner-party conversation, and you are looking for convincing ways to make what they are doing seem acceptable. 

Whatever your circumstances might be, here's a simple 10-step program for excusing bad behavior. (It may also come in handy in your personal life, if you're not good at resisting temptation or making sound decisions.)

Step 1: "It's a lie. It never happened."

When accused of bad behavior, the first instinct of many politicians (or their supporters) is denial. Bill Clinton told us he "never had sex" with "that woman" (Monica Lewinsky), and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria at first denied that chemical weapons had even been used. Similarly, when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked him about the NSA's domestic surveillance activities, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's first response was to deny it was happening, a lie he later described as the "least untruthful" statement he felt he could make. Step 1 is tempting for an obvious reason: When a bald-faced lie works, the problem goes away.

Step 2: Blame someone else.

If you can't hide what happened, blame it on someone else. This line of defense has at least two variants. The first option is to acknowledge that wrongdoing occurred, but pin the blame on one's opponents. Once the use of chemical weapons was confirmed in Syria, for example, Assad's defenders tried to pin the blame on the regime's opponents. Similarly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan now seems to think any criticism of his government or domestic political setback is the result of some sort of foreign conspiracy.  

The second variation is to admit that somebody did something wrong, but pin the blame on subordinates. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie claims he knew nothing -- "Nothing!" -- about Bridgegate, while George W. Bush administration officials claimed that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were just unauthorized acts by low-level enlisted personnel. If you successfully make someone else the fall guy, the people at the top can skate away scot-free.

Step 3: "OK, they did something bad. But they didn't do it on purpose." 

If you can't deny what happened or pin the blame on someone else, the next fallback is to admit there was wrongdoing but that it wasn't intentional. You might try arguing that no one could have foreseen the negative consequences of a particular policy decision and therefore no one should be blamed for its failure. Or one can simply assert that the bad stuff was just a regrettable by-product of an otherwise successful policy; the proverbial broken eggs that make up the omelette. This is how the U.S. government handles civilian casualties from drone strikes; they are "collateral damage" that we did not intend to cause and are therefore excusable.

Step 4: "They had no choice."   

If you can't deny the facts or the intentions, then the next line of defense is claim that whoever you are defending had to do it because the alternatives were worse, or because others forced the person to act in harsh or otherwise regrettable ways.

After 9/11, for example, Donald Rumsfeld tried to deflect criticism of the U.S. response by saying that "responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they're innocent civilians or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of al Qaeda and the Taliban." And sometimes this line of defense might be correct: Those who defend Harry Truman's decision to use atomic weapons against Japan in 1945 invariably argue that a conventional invasion of Japan's home islands would have been even more destructive for Japanese and Americans alike. 

Step 5: "It was for the greater good." 

A close cousin of Step 4 is to argue that the alleged misconduct was part of a noble project and therefore "worth it." Thus, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously defended the U.S.-led sanctions program against Iraq -- sanctions that may have helped cause a half-million excess Iraqi deaths -- by saying the U.S. government believed "they were worth it."

A corollary of this approach is to assert that the passage of time will vindicate the policies that are now being questioned, because any "bad things" they did will eventually lead to lots of wonderful benefits down the road. Those who still defend the Bush administration's illegal and incompetent assault on Iraq like to argue that sooner or later conditions in the Middle East will eventually improve, and that the removal of Saddam Hussein will one day be seen as a key step in the process. Just stick around until 2025 ... or maybe 2050.

Step 6: "Everybody does it, and our opponents do it even more than we do."

Bad behavior is sometimes excused by the claim that it's just "business as usual" and that those being criticized are being singled out or held to an unfair standard. Or you can take this strategy one step further, and defend your side's misconduct by claiming that your opponents are far worse and that any means are acceptable in order to vanquish them. This line of defense is how the Bush administration justified torture, extraordinary rendition, and the other excesses of the early war on terror. By portraying al Qaeda as a uniquely evil threat, the harshest of measures were judged to be entirely appropriate.

Step 7: Emphasize restraint. (aka, "It could have been worse.")

This technique is an obvious way to defend any really powerful state or politician. If they do something that looks bad but didn't go all-out, then defend them by pointing out all the bad things they could have done but didn't. For example, defenders of drone warfare often point out that these weapons are more reliable and precise than large-scale air attacks would be. In other words, they are suggesting that the United States should be praised for not using all the power at its disposal, instead of condemned for misusing the power it chose to employ. Of course, it's a bit like an adulterer begging for forgiveness by claiming he didn't cheat as often as he could have.

I wonder if Christie will try a similar defense: "Hey, we only closed a couple of lanes of traffic; we didn't shut down the whole damn bridge!" If that works, maybe Assad will defend his conduct by pointing out that his regime didn't use most of the chemical weapons in their arsenal.

Step 8:  Assert a special status.

All governments tend to believe that their own actions -- however misguided, foolish, or heinous -- are justified by their own unique history, geopolitical circumstances, or global responsibilities. Thus, the United States refused to sign the land mine treaty or the convention on the International Criminal Court because it claimed its role as the chief protector of global security might be compromised if it agreed to these constraints. But this line of argument is a slippery slope. Once you maintain that you're immune from some of the rules, why stop there? It's also a defense that may convince those who are already favorably inclined, but it's not likely to cut much ice with more serious opponents.

Step 9: Play the guilt card and apologize.

In some cases, you may find yourself having to defend a politician or a policy that really was morally dubious. But as countless celebrity scandals have taught us, sometimes the perpetrators can get away with it if they make a sufficiently convincing show of contrition. For example, the Obama administration has gone to some lengths to portray the president as "agonizing" over the White House "kill list." What's the not-so-hidden message here? "We might be killing some innocent people in distant countries, but we feel really bad about it. So get off our backs."

Step 10:  The Rumsfeld Defense.

When all else fails, you can always fall back on the classic Rumsfeld Defense: "Stuff happens." Things may not have worked out as intended, and a lot of innocent people may be in dire straits as a result, but hey: making policy is an uncertain affair, and sometimes the beneficiaries of our precision-guided tough love aren't appropriately grateful. But that's not our fault; there are always some unknown unknowns out there and nobody's perfect. Sue me.  

The Rumsfeld Defense seems pretty lame, but notice that he kept his job for another four years and was never prosecuted for any of the offenses for which he might have been charged. Instead, the Obama White House requested that he (and others) be granted immunity from prosecution. Even a lame alibi sometimes has value.

* * *

This simple list should be useful anytime you have to excuse, justify, or otherwise defend a failed or ethically-questionable policy. It's not foolproof, but don't despair. Hardly anybody remembers what happened after a couple of decades goes by, so you can always lie back and wait for the revisionist moment to kick in. If you live long enough, you'll have ample opportunities to rewrite the historical record and get your favorite country, political faction, or discredited leader off the hook. Heck, I bet George W. Bush even starts to look like a better leader once enough historical fairy dust gets sprinkled in the eyes of future generations.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


When Reagan Cut and Run

The forgotten history of when America boldly abandoned ship in the Middle East.

Thirty years ago this week, President Ronald Reagan made perhaps the most purposeful and consequential foreign-policy decision of his presidency. Though he never said so explicitly, he ended America's military commitment to a strategic mistake that was peripheral to America's interests. Three-and-a-half months after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. military personnel -- and after repeatedly pledging not to do so -- Reagan ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Lebanon. As Gen. Colin Powell later aptly summarized this military misadventure: "Beirut wasn't sensible and it never did serve a purpose. It was goofy from the beginning."

What was particularly remarkable about Reagan's bold decision was its rarity. Presidents often authorize using force or deploying troops to achieve some discrete set of political and military objectives. When they prove incapable of doing so with the initial resources and political support, the mission can be scaled back in its scope, enlarged to achieve additional missions, or, the atypical choice, terminated. The latter option requires having the ability to recognize failure, and political courage to end a U.S. military commitment. In large part, it is a combined lack of strategic awareness and political courage that explains many U.S. military disasters. To understand how Ronald Reagan successfully pulled this off, it is worth reviewing and remembering the strategic mistake that was the U.S. military deployment to Lebanon in the midst of that country's wrenching civil war.

Upon the request of the government of Lebanon, the United Nations authorized the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNF) in 1982 to help the government regain control over the country. There was strong disagreement within the Reagan administration about potential U.S. involvement, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously opposed to the deployment, and the National Security Council and State Department deeply enthusiastic. Subsequently, the Joint Chiefs developed a range of options for America's participation in the MNF, including sending up to 63,000 U.S. troops to Lebanon to disarm the militias, and enforce the peace in territory under the control of Syria and Israel. Ultimately, without congressional approval, Reagan authorized the deployment of what was seen as a limited mission of some 1,800 Marines, who joined French, Italian, and later British troops. Reagan claimed: "Their mission is to provide an interposition force at agreed locations," but "in carrying out this mission, the American force will not engage in combat."

After the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) pulled out of Beirut in August 1982, MNF troops withdrew to their ships offshore. But the assassination of Lebanese President Bachir Gemayel, massacre of Palestinian refugees -- who were living in camps under Israeli military control -- by militias linked to the Maronite Christian Phalange Party, and the subsequent chaos led almost immediately to international support for a second MNF deployment.

It was during this second MNF deployment that the intention and scope of U.S. forces was never quite clear. Shortly after the U.S. troops returned to Lebanese territory, on Aug. 20, 1982, Reagan contended that they would now "assist the Lebanese Armed Forces in carrying out their responsibility for ensuring the departure of PLO leaders, officers, and combatants in Beirut from Lebanese territory," and "facilitate the restoration of the sovereignty and authority of the Lebanese Government over the Beirut area." He added: "In no case will our troops stay longer than 30 days."

On Oct. 28, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger offered his astonishingly contradictory statement: "What we need is a multinational force until certain conditions have been achieved. Nobody knows when those conditions can be achieved. It is not an open-ended commitment." (Weinberger later wrote in his memoir, "I objected [to the deployment], of course, very strongly, because this MNF would not have any mission that could be defined.") State Department official Lawrence Eagleburger, using Iraq surge-like language, later claimed during a congressional hearing that the Marines' mission was ''to provide the Government of Lebanon a breathing spell to begin to sort out the country's political problems.'' By Sept. 29, 1983, Reagan stated: "Their mission is to provide an interposition force at agreed locations and thereby provide the multinational presence as requested by the Lebanese Government to assist it and the Lebanese Armed Forces."

In October 1983, after five Marines were killed in three separate incidents, National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane convinced the president to authorize the USS New Jersey to launch attacks against the Druze militia and Syrian forces on land. According to Powell, once the naval attack commenced, the Shiites "assumed the American 'referee' had taken sides against them. And since they could not reach the battleship, they found a more vulnerable target: the exposed Marines at the airport." Within one week, Hezbollah-linked militants drove two truck bombs containing a half a kiloton of explosives into the Marine barracks at the Beirut International Airport, killing 220 Marines and 21 other U.S. service members.

In the months that followed, the Reagan administration discussed a range of options including striking back and fully withdrawing the Marines. Reagan never retaliated against Hezbollah or their Iranian and Syrian sponsors responsible for the bombings, a position widely endorsed by senior military officials. As then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. John Vessey declared: "It is beneath our dignity to retaliate against the terrorists who blew up the Marine barracks."

The Reagan administration also considered the pluses and minuses of withdrawing from the MNF. On the day after the barracks bombing, however, the president reaffirmed his commitment: "The reason they must stay there until the situation is under control is quite clear. We have vital interests in Lebanon. And our actions in Lebanon are in the cause of world peace." Over a month later, on Dec. 1, Reagan stated that the Marines were in Beirut to "demonstrate the strength of our commitment to peace in the Middle East.... Their presence is making it possible for reason to triumph over the forces of violence, hatred, and intimidation." Nine days later, he told the nation: "Once internal stability is established and withdrawal of all foreign forces is assured, the Marines will leave." Finally, on Feb. 4, 1984, Reagan stated something frequently heard in debates over Afghanistan and other theaters of conflict today -- if the United States withdraws, "we'll be sending one signal to terrorists everywhere: They can gain by waging war against innocent people.... If we're to be secure in our homes and in the world, we must stand together against those who threaten us."

Yet, just three days later, on Feb. 7, Reagan ordered the Marines to "redeploy" to their ships offshore -- which was actually a full withdrawal achieved in three weeks. Although the Marine's mission in Lebanon was not clearly defined and, subsequently, not achieved, Reagan's tacit admission of failure and withdrawal of the Marines from Lebanon limited America's further involvement in foreign-policy disaster -- saving money, lives, and time. Many pundits later claimed wrongly that Reagan was erroneous, because Osama bin Laden contended that the withdrawal was a sign of U.S. weakness; as if America's strategic choices should be held hostage to how terrorists choose to describe them.

U.S. officials and policymakers often share a long tradition of refusing to acknowledge strategic errors, or to place specific blame on individuals responsible for their authorization and execution. Rather, the causes of defeat are assigned to anonymous sources like "the bureaucracy," "lack of public will," or maybe "Congress." When serving or retired officials are asked whether a war or military intervention was a mistake, they often reply: "That's for historians to decide." Even then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said this when asked if Iraq was "worth it" just before he retired: "[I]t really requires a historian's perspective in terms of what happens here in the long term."

But historians do not make future policy decisions; they study and assess previous ones. Sending Marines to Lebanon for such an imprecise and unachievable end-state was a tremendous mistake. Reagan's decision to tacitly admit that it was a U.S. foreign-policy failure, and to then undertake corrective actions, was an admirable trait rarely seen in poilcymakers or presidents.