What is a “political opinion”?

On the radio yesterday, I heard a man interviewed who had recently lost his job at the US Department of State. The man said that “It is not the job of the State Department to give political opinions.”This struck me as an odd thing to say; after all, the State Department’s primary function is to provide channels of communication between US policymakers and their counterparts in other countries and to augment its reports to US policymakers with expert knowledge preparing them to respond to decisions their counterparts are likely to make. That sounds like activity that falls entirely within the realm of “giving political opinions.”

Now in fairness, it is the case that the phrase “political opinion” has several senses. I’ve divided these into a few subcategories and listed several under each subcategory:

A. Affiliation signals:

  1. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to intimidate members of other groups into silence.
  2. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to persuade members of other groups to join that group.
  3. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to invite members of other groups to negotiate a new relationship between the groups.
  4. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to reassure members of other groups that the speaker is content with the existing relationship between the groups.
  5. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to confront members of other groups with the speaker’s willingness to support increased hostility towards their groups.
  6. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s affiliation with a particular group and to offer that group’s surrender to another group.
  7. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to request membership in another group.
  8. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to offer him/herself as a mediator between that group and another group.
  9. A statement meant to signal the speaker’s break from a particular group with which s/he was previously affiliated and to indicate that s/he would like to be recruited for membership by multiple other groups.

B. Ideological confessions

  1. A statement meant to explain the speaker’s ideological commitments to an audience who may not be aware of them.
  2. A statement meant to persuade the speaker’s audience to adopt the speaker’s ideological commitments.
  3. A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.

C. Game analysis

  1. A statement forecasting the likely outcomes of a given conflict.
  2. A statement listing the considerations that votes or policymakers are likely to take into account as they reach their decisions, and predicting the relative importance they are likely to attach to each of these considerations.

D. Historical discussion

  1. A statement identifying one past situation as a better analogy than another for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  2. A statement affirming the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.
  3. A statement challenging the familiar interpretation of a past situation that has been admitted as an analogy for illuminating a given situation in the present.

What I first thought of when I was listening to the recently unemployed career diplomat were political opinions in categories C and D. If the State Department isn’t giving policymakers opinions of those kinds, it’s time to wind the whole thing down and save the taxpayers a lot of money.

I suspect what the man had in mind were categories A and B. Indeed, category A statements should never be necessary; any policymaker worth his or her salt should be able, in  a few minutes, to discern without being told what group affiliations and ideological commitments are likely to inform a given speaker’s thinking, especially if that speaker belongs to a type that is as familiar as the career foreign service officer.

Category B statements should be necessary only in those cases where the world situation is changing so rapidly and comprehensively that the established doctrines have become irrelevant and new doctrines are needed in short order; the classic example would be the “Long Telegrams” that George Kennan and Frank Roberts sent at the inception of the Cold War.

What I couldn’t help but suspect, however, is that the man on the radio had been on the job too long. I’m sure the leaders of the new administration in Washington thought so. While those leaders are people in whose judgment I would normally place absolutely no confidence whatever, the longer I listened to him the more strongly I found myself wondering whether they might be right in this case, whether he might be offering statements of type B3 (“A statement made by a person who is unaware that his or her ideological commitments are specific to people of his or her historical description, and who believes that the statement is just plain common sense.”) If, as it seemed, he had spent his entire youth preparing to work in the foreign service, then had spent his entire adult life actually in the foreign service, it would hardly be surprising if he were to believe that he was expressing the common sense of humanity when he was in fact presenting views peculiar to that profession.

 

 

 

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