PJ Crowley: “Will My Words Be Credible?”

There’s something deeply ironic about the beltway’s most tawdry purveyor of the Village narrative, Politico (“Win the morning™”), treating former State Department Spokesperson PJ Crowley’s investment in a strategic narrative dismissively. Ben Smith seems like he has never heard of something called “a narrative” or, on a larger scale, “ideology” before.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought Crowley, 59, to the State Department in part because he was viewed as someone who was virtually certain to make none of those mistakes. Crowley had always seemed the soul of discretion, a spokesman so wedded to the daily guidance during the Clinton White House years that reporters joked that he might go on background if asked what the next day’s weather forecast looked like.

But unbeknown to his new colleagues at State – and many of his old friends across Washington – Crowley arrived at State after an evolution of sorts. The career Air Force officer, who had entered a military establishment still scarred by the Vietnam War and still deeply hostile to the press, spent his years in civilian life at the Center for American Progress, thinking about strategy. There, some colleagues were surprised to find that his politics seemed to have been shaped more, as one put it, by his native Massachusetts than the Air Force. He settled on the idea of “strategic narrative,” a concept that has made its way into national security jargon from business theory, and one he included in a report he wrote for CAP.

Which is, I think, why Smith misses the key reason why Crowley went off the handle–and why his ouster was inevitable.

Note the emphasis Crowley puts on matching words to deeds to values in his interview.

At the State Department podium, Crowley seemed to find his voice and to also realize that his voice could shape policy. “In the digital global age that we’re in, our actions and our words have greater impact. I knew that at the podium – that I would say something and within a few hours, the message would be received somewhere else – and a response,” he said. “That has impact, because on a regular basis, at the podium, I would challenge the impact of other countries on the treatment of their own citizens, their treatment of prisoners, on their treatment of the media.”


“There were times when I thought it was important to push for the United States to take a public stand,” he said of his time at the podium. “I thought it was important to make sure that what we were saying and what we were doing would be consistent with, not only our interest but our values.”


“I view myself as a strategic thinker and always tried to put what I was saying at the podium in a broader context and trying to always assess, will my words be credible?” he said.

Crowley talks about his public statements criticizing other countries for the treatment of citizens, prisoners, and media. He reflects on the importance of “what we were saying” and “what we were doing” matching our values. And he describes reflecting–always assessing–“will my words be credible?”

As it happens, Smith looks at a series of statements Crowley made that were undiplomatic about individual people–mocking the nonsense Qaddafi was spewing, suggesting Egypt had to do more than “shuffle the deck.” Smith also recalls Crowley’s analogy between the Japanese tsunami and the wave of unrest across the Middle East.

But he doesn’t look at what I consider, still, one of Crowley’s most telling statements (as it happens, like his comments on Bradley Manning’s ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid treatment, this also took place in a talk at a university), one which addresses all of the issues Crowley raised in his interview with Smith.

No one is a greater advocate for a vibrant independent and responsible press, committed to the promotion of freedom of expression and development of a true global civil society, than the United States. Every day, we express concern about the plight of journalists (or bloggers) around the world who are intimidated, jailed or even killed by governments that are afraid of their people, and afraid of the empowerment that comes with the free flow of information within a civil society.

Most recently, we did so in the context of Tunisia, which has hacked social media accounts while claiming to protect their citizens from the incitement of violence. But in doing so, we feel the government is unduly restricting the ability of its people to peacefully assemble and express their views in order to influence government policies. These are universal principles that we continue to support.  And we practice what we preach. Just look at our own country and cable television. We don’t silence dissidents. We make them television news analysts.

Some in the human rights community in this country, and around the world, are questioning our commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and Internet freedom in the aftermath of WikiLeaks. I am constrained in what I can say, both because individual cables remain classified, and the leak is under investigation by the Department of Justice. But let me briefly put this in context and then I will open things up for questions.  WikiLeaks is about the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. It is not an exercise in Internet freedom. It is about the legitimate investigation of a crime. It is about the need to continue to protect sensitive information while enabling the free flow of public information. [my emphasis]

This is, at a key level, strategic narrative (or, what we used to call ideology back when it helped us win the Cold War) at work. The United States believes, Crowley said, in a vibrant independent press. The United States is committed to the promotion of freedom of expression. The United States considers social networking to be akin to freedom of assembly–and it defends such assembly. The United States doesn’t silence dissidents.

Of course, those statements are all well and good–and they may well help win us support among aspiring dissidents (or maybe not).

But they were not credible. Given that the US had, presumably, already done its own hacking of citizen speech when it took down Wikileaks in this country, given the government’s presumed actions to cut off WikiLeaks’ infrastructure in this country, and given the way DOD subjected Bradley Manning–an alleged leaker, yes, but also, clearly, a dissident–to forced nudity, the things Crowley was saying in support of the Arab spring uprising were not credible.

Now, frankly, I’m not sure whether Crowley believes what he said–that the US is the world’s greatest advocate for freedom of expression. Or whether he believes the image that the United States used to have as the bastion of human rights serves an important strategic purpose in our diplomacy abroad.

Whichever it is, though, it’s pretty clear our government–Republicans and Democrats–no longer remain committed to using the myth of America as a key tool of our diplomacy anymore (some nice speeches in and about Cairo notwithstanding). And for a guy who spent his lifetime serving that ideal, it was only a matter of time before the conflict between the ideal and the reality led to his departure.

  1. lysias says:

    Crowley’s father, like Taguba’s, was a prisoner of war. (Taguba’s father was a survivor of the Bataan Death March.)

    I’m not sure why the government sources who leaked that explanation of Crowley’s conduct thought it would discredit what Crowley was saying. It seems to me to give it moral depth.

    • emptywheel says:

      That’s why I brought up the Cold War. This is not MA hippie talk. It’s the kind of talk that we used for two centuries, and it really did play a role in our winning the Cold War.

      • scribe says:

        That’s because in the Cold War we were (perceived as) walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

        We created the Peace Corps, who brought idealistic young Americans to remote rural places to build schools or bring clean water. Now, we ship them our factories where they can be effective slaves and consume our crap foods.

        We created Food for Peace and helped bring about the Green Revolution. Now, we seize their seeds and claim owneship of the genotypes of their foodstuffs, so we can profit from them.

        We sent scholars to help new countries through their birthing. One of my law school profs helped write a huge number of constitutions in African countries. Now we ship them our thugs and spies.

        We gave bright young people from the Third World the opportunity to come to what were then the best universities in the world – ours – on our dime so they could take the education back home and help their countries, as doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, political scientists and businesspeople. Now, we stigmatize them as probable terrorists and look to kick them out.

        We exported our culture (so to speak) in shipping TV and movies overseas. Only, unlike today, the models of America people saw were Ben Cartwright and Perry Mason, not Jack Bauer and his ilk.

        Even in Europe in the 70s and 80s, our soldiers were welcomed and liked by the locals because they were not torturing thugs, but just open, lively American kids there for the locals’ benefit.

        Any wonder things are different?

        • emptywheel says:

          Peace Corps wasn’t always a net plus, particularly in Latin America where it is still believed to be a CIA cover.

          I just keep thinking of the role that AMerican culture–rock and jazz most of all–had in inspiring the dissidents in Eastern Europe.

          • scribe says:

            And the largest distributors of jazz and rock to the masses of Eastern Europe were Voice of America and, in those areas close to the border fence, AFN. One of the biggest influences, most people have never heard of: RIAS Berlin, i.e. “Radio in the American Sector” of Berlin, which covered a lot of East Germany and at least a corner of western Poland.

            • earlofhuntingdon says:

              There is the irony that jazz, rock, and dance were condemned by conservatives here as encouraging “rebellion”, meaning adopting a view of America at odds with a post-war, 1950’s conservatism that survives today. Elvis Presley’s hips, Brando’s bike, and Captain America’s flag-painted fuel tank shook their world, too.

        • bobschacht says:

          That’s because in the Cold War we were (perceived as) walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

          Well now, just hold on a sec.
          * The Cold War is also the era of J Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s investigations of noted subversives like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lennon
          * The Cold War also witnessed the witch hunts of Joe McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee
          * It was during the Cold War that Ike and John Foster Dulles engineered the coup d’etats against the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran (Mossadegh), and against the democratically elected Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba.
          * It was also in that era that JFK had to lie about a non-existant “missile gap” to beat Richard Nixon, and LBJ led us into the quagmire of Vietnam because of the “domino theory” and a falsely engineered “Gulf of Tonkin” incident.

          So things weren’t entirely rosey and peachy keen in those days. And regarding our international reputation, remember The Ugly American(1958)?

          Bob in AZ

      • Jeff Kaye says:

        I am a bit of a “dissident” on this subject, myself. While the terrible tyranny of the Stalinist states under Soviet rule was what mostly brought them down at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. support of democratic rights was only relative… quite relative.

        Whether it was interventions in elections in Italy and France in the 1940s, the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran and Chile, support for assassination squads and programs in Eastern Europe/Russia, Central America, and Southeast Asia, widespread training of torturers for foreign police, military and paramilitary forces, the invasion or bombing of countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Serbia/Yugoslavia, Iraq, and now Libya), the U.S. overseas was hardly the supporter of dissident rights, unless it served their purposes.

        Frankly, IMO, the war against Libya is meant to secure U.S./NATO military positions should the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt turn more radical.

        Meanwhile at home, tens of thousands were blacklisted during the Cold War, while the FBI conducted dirty tricks campaigns and infiltrated the civil rights and antiwar movements, the American Indian Movement, and left-wing political groups. They constructed “experimental” prisons to put captured and convicted political opponents of the regime, as Susan Rosenberg narrates in her recent book, An American Radical: Political Prisoner in my Own Country, prisons that explicitly tried to break prisoners of their ideological beliefs (as they did in the a high-security isolation unit in the basement of the Federal Correctional Institution in Lexington, Kentucky).

        Crowley was an adviser/spokesman for Clinton’s National Security Council, and a supporter of the criminal sanctions on Iraq during those years, which led to the deaths of a 100,000s of children, elderly, and the sick. I know that he stood up and said something critical on the current treatment of Bradley Manning, and good for him on that. But I will not lionize the man.

        “We have heard that a half million children have died [in Iraq],” Stahl [of 60 Minutes] said. “I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And — and you know, is the price worth it?” Albright replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”

        Crowley was Special Assistant to the President Clinton for National Security Affairs and served on the staff of his National Security Council. Did Crowley speak out against the inhumanity of the sanctions then? In fact, he was a supporter of the sanctions, and has always been a spokesperson for the expansion of American power.

        I know these inconvenient facts don’t make me popular in their re-telling, but they should be known.

        • emptywheel says:

          I’m aware of those facts.

          I’m also aware that the precipitating factor in the collapse of the USSR had to do with oil prices manipulated by us and our allies.

          But I also know that the perception of the dissidents in E Europe 1) undermined the legitimacy of the govt(s) by pointing out the promises it wasn’t keeping and 2) US culture (especially) and history was a huge influence.

          Latin America, less so, for obvious reasons.

          But I would imagine anyone of Crowley’s age watching events unfold in MENA the most direct parallel would be Eastern Europe.

          • scribe says:

            I’m also aware that the precipitating factor in the collapse of the USSR had to do with oil prices manipulated by us and our allies.

            But I also know that the perception of the dissidents in E Europe 1) undermined the legitimacy of the govt(s) by pointing out the promises it wasn’t keeping and 2) US culture (especially) and history was a huge influence.

            True, as to the USSR.

            You neglect, though, the way the DDR was finally undermined in 89: peaceful demonstrations in August and September. But that was the final act – they doubled in size every week. The triggering event (at least according to the East Germans) was that in the spring municipal elections in the southern part of the old East Germany, the results showed up in the news feed from Berlin to the TV stations a couple days before the elections took place (and were broadcast, “by mistake” – still a bone of contention whether it was a mistake or a “mistake”). That was followed by actual election litigation by dissidents against the East German government – i.e., a demand for the rule of law to mean something. (They used paper ballots, too, but the counting was optional.)

            And, I suspect, there was no small involvement of Western governments and intelligence services in pushing things along, not the least of which was the West German government pushing to open the Hungarian frontier, across which a lot of East Bloc folks crossed into Austria. But a lot of that seems still classified and destined to stay so for years to come.

            • emptywheel says:

              No, more generally. Remember, I’ve dug deeply through Czech archives, reading documents that were interacting heavily w/Polish and German writers. In the several year period leading up to events of 1989, culture and the model of the US was very central to the myths the dissidents were telling themselves. There were national aspects (Poland was way more focused on Catholicism, not least bc of the Pope and for other obvious reasons. Czechoslovakia probably embraced the US culture most aggressively (not least bc interwar Czechoslovakia had the biggest per capita movie industry going, with close ties to Hollywood). But the cultural and American mythology was a big part of what dissidents were discussing among themselves in those years.

              • scribe says:

                I know about your work on the Czechs and the leadup to ’89 and in no way dispute it. And I agree wholeheartedly that each of the East Bloc countries came to throw off the Sovs and Communists for reasons specific to the particular country.

                What I was trying to say, to make myself clearer, was that the precipitating events in East Germany, that led to the DDR collapsing in the fall of 89, were the rigged municipal elections in May, 1989. That was one of the things which turned the populace against their government. Or, perhaps more precisely, it allowed individuals who had once thought they were the only people who might disagree with their government or thought it corrupt but were too cowed by the State apparat or feared being labelled as on the fringe, to recognize that they were not the only ones who felt that way. In so many words, those rigged elections were a Katrina event.

                But, for them to have been the precipitating events that they were, there had to have been a substantial foundation-laying of dissent (and oppositional mythmaking, if you will) going on in the preceding years. The correspondence/work by/between the Czech and German intellectuals and writers in those preceding years was essential to building those foundations.

                Interestingly, there was a substantial church-based peace movement in East Germany during the 80s, largely (sold as) being in response to the US and Warsaw Pact military buildups in Europe in the early 80s and being built on the non-violent teachings (Jeh Johnson to the contrary notwithstanding) of Martin Luther King. Indeed, publicly praising or citing King was enough to get a Stasi file opened on you (at a minimum). And the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig featured big banners “Keine Gewalt” (no violence).

                Not surprisingly, church attendance fell radically after the Wall came down and reunification took place.

          • EdwardTeller says:

            that the precipitating factor in the collapse of the USSR had to do with oil prices manipulated by us and our allies.

            one of the precipitating factors, albeit an extremely important one. However, the oncoming crisis in the USSR was obvious to many of us knowledgeable about Soviet culture from the late 60s on, especially to people (I wasn’t one of them, but know many who were in on it) who were knowledgeable about the artistic undergrounds and communications between exiled dissidents and apparent apparatchiks who had turned on the system. Dmitri Shostakovich is an example.

            It wasn’t a matter of if, but of when the USSR would collapse.

            • lysias says:

              I remember reading Andrei Amalrik’s Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? when I was stationed in Berlin between 1970 and 1972 (original publication in Russian was in 1969). At the time, I couldn’t believe it could collapse that fast. But Amalrik’s dating was not far wrong.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Libya does straddle the crossroads of Africa – Arabic speaking oil states to the East and West, ports and trade, shipping and air routes through the Med, access to inland routes south of the Sahara.

  2. allan says:

    his politics seemed to have been shaped more … by his native Massachusetts than the Air Force.

    Bring out the smelling salts. Because Taxachusetts is, like, practically Old Europe.

    • scribe says:

      America was a radical idea. Imagine: ordinary people doing what they pleased and the government being limited in what it could do to them when they disagreed with the government.

    • bobschacht says:

      Yeah, but they used *wigs,* rather than just letting it all hang out.

      BTW, thanks for this diary. I wish there were a whole lot more P J Crowley’s in the government– especially over at DOJ.

      Bob in AZ

  3. scribe says:

    I will opine that Crowley’s insights on the nature of strategic narrative prior to his rejoining State came as a sort of delayed reaction to his years of military service. It’s said in any number of different ways, but sometimes people only “get it” once they’ve been through the wringer and are on the other side, looking back and asking “what does it mean?”: there are any number of ways to impress your boss, but only one way to impress your subordinates.

    If America is to be a leader in the world, as Crowley probably believes is America’s lot in life today, then in and as the nature of leadership, those countries and peoples we are leading will continuously hold us up and look at us through a simple prism: do America’s acts match it’s words? In the Village, bullshit is the currency of everything and no one in the Village expects acts to match words. Rather, they look at words as something to use in gulling the rubes outside the Beltway. And only the best practitioners of bullshit have a chance of ascending the ladder into the Big Jobs.

    Of course, when they try to run that game on people outside the US of A, those folks hear the fine, fancy words and then look at US airplanes – manned or not – dropping bombs on them or people like them. They hear the talk of freedom and democracy, and feel the boot of US-supported dictators on their neck and see the diplomats and presidents of the US meeting happily with those thugs. They see the disconnect firsthand.

    People in the US have been insulated for decades from direct knowledge of the colossal disconnect between the USG’s words and practices, through the connivance of the US media. You just couldn’t get foreign newspapers or TV or radio in the US. You never got the reality of the story because it was mollified and managed by having to pass through editors when it hit the water’s edge. The same goes on today, even in the internet age. When I listen to foreign-languiage radio on the internet, I get stories from their news hours or days in advance of when the same story moves across the US media. And when the story finally hits the US media, you should be surprised (I’m not) at how it has been edited and sweetened for the US market. Today, the growth of internet media and consequent excision of editors and publishers from influencing what hits the US reader has set in motion movement which will make the Mideast waves look small by comparison.

    The same works going the other way – people overseas (who often have English fluency far better than a lot of Americans) can get all the details of what the Americans are saying and see just how perverse the goings-on have become.

    There’s something else which Crowley may have encountered, but of whch those overseas are surely aware: “what you are screams so loudly that I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” And a lot fewer people are listening to what the US is saying, the more bombs it drops.

    • JClausen says:


      Would you consider making this comment into a diary?

      I never viewed my country the same after 3 years as an ex-pat in Libya.

      We are so isolated here by the few choices we choose to make and the bullshit that is fed to us.

  4. hotdog says:

    Credibility is for wimps. Did Stalin worry about credibility? Hitler? Mao? Power trumps everything, at least for a while.

    Who’s your Pentagon sock puppet MIC operative Nobel Peace Prize winning daddy? /s

  5. RoyalOak says:

    EW has probably covered this somewhere but I am going OT (sorry) because it needs to be seen –

    Michiganders – to volunteer or/and donate to Recall Gov. Snyder (the petition is being checked for language right now at Washtenaw County and once that’s done we can collect signatures) – http://www.michigancitizensunited.org

  6. donbacon says:

    To build on what Jeff Kaye said, there currently seems to be a vast divide about–
    1) how a government treats its own citizens, and
    2) how a government treats foreign citizens.

    Libya, for example, in the U.S. is totally about how the government treats its own citizens. Crowley is concerned about freedom of expression in various places. Totally domestic considerations.

    There is the whole other area, neglected by Crowley and others, regarding how some governments treat the people in other countries. The U.S. (and a few others) is rather routinely and somewhat randomly assaulting, killing, injuring, imprisoning, and torturing foreigners.

    Is it okay to assault foreigners so long as the locals have freedom of expression? While it’s fine to be concerned about freedom of expression it’s only one small part of the overall field of wrongful government activities, and Manning is only one man of the tens of thousands who have been assaulted by the U.S. government.

    • emptywheel says:

      Which is why it all comes back to Bradley Manning, given that the thing that made him rethink what the US (and he personally) was doing in Iraq came when he was ordered to figure out how to help Maliki’s goons round up more people for calling out his corruption in fliers.

      • donbacon says:

        Well it doesn’t all come back to Bradley Manning for me, at a time when my country is insanely bombing Libya (for one example) for humanitarian purposes because domestic freedoms are important and foreign aggression isn’t.

          • DWBartoo says:


            And then the questions, for all the rest of us, are these: Where are our hearts? Where is our conscience? What will we dare to understand? And the big kicker, What will we do?

            All of this, ultimately, in not about Bradley Manning or even Barack Obama and the destruction of the rule of law, it is about what the people of America will tolerate, or permit to be done in their names, on many critical levels … it is about the soul of a nation and the civility of its people, it is a test of moral integrity for a people who prefer unthinking comfort and self-agrandizing myth – it is not unlike the “tests” which other nations have faced and, mostly, failed …

            It is probably not too early to begin to think post-collapse, for America does not seem prepared to change her destructive ways, and, looking forward, that likely means that “others” will have to “help” us to understand, by whatever “means” seem, to them, to be most rational, sane, and necessary.

            Bradley Manning has provided us an opportunity … it is doubtful we shall avail ourselves of it.


            • Ironcomments says:

              The American ideal is: It is better to be rich than right, peace on to you,unless you disturb my peace, as an American I deserve more, no other justification needed. War is evil unless its for a good cause. The capitalist is invaluable while the worker is disposable.

  7. scribe says:

    in response to [email protected]:

    Which is likely a subsidiary reason the USG has chosen to be so brutal in its treatment of Manning – he was unwilling to tolerate the cognitive/behavioral dissonance his orders required. That showed he was likely one of the healthiest people in that outfit.

    In so many words, he’s pointed out the Emperor has no clothes, so the Emperor took his.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nice McCarthyite code about Crowley’s “native Massachusetts”. It is amazing how many stereotypes Politico can pack into two words.

    First, it implies the horror that Crowley might have retained an affection for the behavior and priorities he grew up with. It sets those against what he ought to have learned in the US Air Force, which was already known for its christianist proselytizing, for fictional generals like Jack D. Ripper, and for real generals who wanted to bomb the Vietnamese back to the “Stone Age”.

    Among the country club set, “native” is entirely negative: Native grasses mar the smoothness of fairways and putting greens. An executive or official who “goes native” empathizes too much with workers or locals. He can’t be relied upon to put his employer’s interests above those of a labor union, an Amazonian or American Indian’s, or a Venezuelan president’s.

    Going native also means going natural, which is always “ugly”: Birkenstocks, a teenage son’s too long hair, a teenage daughter’s bra-less look, a rusty Volkswagen, not the family Mercedes.

    It also means a Ground Hog Day experience where it’s always 1968. The victim is always a still unemployed Richard Nixon, putting up with hippies in Golden Gate Park; riots in LA, Indianapolis or Chicago; and student protests in Berlin, Berkeley, Paris or Prague.

    Massachusetts, of course, is the most liberal of states – by the standards of Westchester, not Holland, Canada or the UK. (California is off the chart.) It is home to the Kennedy’s, the Kerry’s and Howard Zinn. Mention native Massachusetts and it carries the same meaning that western Washingtonians have when they call an Oregonian a tree hugger.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The American Revolution was about money, too. The Boston Tea Party, for example, followed a halving of the net cost of tea, a move that would have made a major dent in smugglers’ pocketbooks: 900,000 out of the 1.2 million pounds a year were imported through smuggling. It wasn’t only about “freeedom” in the political sense.