Any Way the Wind Blows

From drone strikes to Syria, the indecisive Obama administration thinks it can conduct foreign policy by floating trial balloons.

Only in Washington can an acronym be perceived as an insult. For this reason apparently, the White House yesterday announced that the artists once known as the National Security Council (NSC) staff but rechristened in 2009 by President Barack Obama as the National Security Staff (NSS) would henceforth be referred to again as the National Security Council (NSC) staff. Apparently, in the eyes of NSC staffers, the NSS lacked the cache of the direct and clear association to the National Security Council itself. So, in a gesture of sensitivity to their needs, National Security Advisor Susan Rice (NSASR) prevailed on the president to change the name back. Mission accomplished.

Now, since I've written one book on the NSC and have another one due out in September (hint), you might expect that I would have a strong opinion about one or the other of these names, the Classic Coke and New Coke of the foreign-policy acronym bureaucracy. But I don't. Far too much time is spent by each administration christening and rechristening the names for memos and committees and reworking their org chart -- we hardly need to devote more to commenting on it.

Having said that, I do have a suggestion that the NSC may wish to consider using as its symbol (if it considers next going the way of the artist formerly known as "Prince"): the weathervane.

Take the recent reports that the White House is deliberating as to whether or not they should kill an American citizen who is allegedly collaborating with bad guys in Pakistan. Which -- behind closed doors -- is, of course, just the kind of thing they should be doing, especially given the recent debate over the morality and legality of such strikes. Further, such internal discussions on their own do not, of course, suggest that the Obama administration is flailing, or that its top policymakers are most comfortable pointing in the direction the political wind is blowing. But the fact that they chose to leak this story -- and given its distribution to top papers simultaneously, complete with off-the-record White House comments, it is absolutely clear that is what happened -- is another matter.

It's difficult not to conclude from this weird turn of events that the White House is not sure what it thinks and wants to test public reaction before it takes a decision, or -- as has happened in the past -- punts. That's how the Syria debacle unfolded in August. A deliberate, public call to action led to a decision which led to second guessing which led to leaks about the "very deliberate" process of second guessing, which led to the president punting the decision to Congress. And that, of course, led to the message being sent to the world that America had no clear idea what it wanted to do in that unfortunate, war-ravaged country. Or recall the way the candidacy of Larry Summers to be Fed chief was leaked to the press to test the waters before a decision was made. Or that in the days before the president made his remarks on the NSA scandal, elements of his response were leaked and tested with the media. Testing the waters isn't a sin, but that this has become something approaching standard operating procedure -- in instances when decisions were hard or might be controversial -- is.

The administration says that it takes these decisions (whether these enemy combatants are threats to the United States) seriously, and that it won't hesitate to act. Well, either this person is a threat to the United States or he isn't. And this certainly seems like hesitating to act.

Further, if the White House is planning a secret mission to violate the sovereignty of another country and blast someone who happened to be colluding with terrorists there are some pretty good conventional, operational, and diplomatic reasons why such a thing should remain secret. Once again, for an administration that has been selectively aggressive on targeting and prosecuting leakers (see the case just this past week of a State Department leaker sentenced to prison time for his misstep), it is amazing how often they violate basic operational security standards to achieve a political purpose. (Like rapidly declassifying info on the Osama bin Laden raid or secret back-channel negotiations with the Iranians to assure that the president got full credit for his successes.)

Leaders are supposed to have principles, standards, and processes by which critical security decisions are developed that enable them to protect U.S. interests by keeping those decisions on the down low. Most Americans not only expect this, it's one of the reasons they hired the leaders in the first place. The idea that each one is opened up to crude public polling and debate in the Washington echo chamber is grotesque, politically craven, and undermines the likelihood our missions will be successful. It is not how leaders or professional security organizations behave. It is the way of the pol.

For these reasons, acronyms be damned, as long as the NSC is using a weathervane to produce public policy decisions that should be its symbol ... and a caution to all who think values, reason, or suitable standards of professional judgment are dependably our means for determining America's security policies worldwide.

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Cover photoillustration by FP, Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images


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.

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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.

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