The Art of National Security Sophistry
Or, How to Filibuster Critical Thinking
In a previous life, I spent a lot of time working inside the machinery of the national security state. By soaking in the bureaucracy and then later the think tank world, I learned many things. One of them was how to say a lot without saying anything at all.
Why would you do that? Well, because you don’t know what you want to say but have to give an appearance of accountability. Public explanation-making checks that accountability box. Also, sometimes you have a message to push outward.
But the biggest reason is that US officials get invited to participate in and speak at an unbelievably large number of events. You can’t say no to all of them, and the politics of technocracy involves carefully selecting relationship-building with particular people and institutions that you might need to provide you a sinecure when you leave government.
So for the sake of relationship management and personal career development, you must do some events. Yet the more you say, the more you’re at risk of being held to account for what you say. The workaround is to speak in language that ties your hands as little as possible and generates coverage from sympathetic media.
Why is this a problem? Because the media and large sections of the pundit class act overly credulous when government officials make statements or give speeches. Everyone knows speeches by government officials are products of messy bureaucratic processes where various interest groups shape and shove the content.
But that has a big implication—the final product, because of how it is produced, rarely hangs together coherently. And speechwriters themselves are masters of literally nothing except making “building blocks” of unconnected prose click together as if coherent.
I’ve flagged this problem of incoherence before. (As an aside, the most useful government statements take the form of op-eds or essays in respectable publications—the conventions of the magazine/newspaper medium force the authors to be more analytically accountable than they would otherwise be).
I bring all this up because National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan just gave a speech at the Brookings Institution on what he called a “New Washington Consensus,” meaning that economic policy has shifted. It was kind of an important speech and I have to parse through it in a separate post (or maybe podcast?) dedicated specifically to political economy.
But before embarking on that journey, I wanted to offer a little primer on rhetorical tactics that government policy ninjas use to engage in, as James Brown sang, “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin Nothing.”
Jake’s speech, despite dropping some insightful nuggets, employed all these tricks, and these tricks serve to obscure good analysis and clear thinking.
So here are seven rhetorical tactics of the (well-intentioned) national security propaganda trade.