September 5, 2013
Here it is! This isn't the only map of it I've ever seen! (Gene Thorp/Washington Post)
Here it is! This isn’t the only map of it I’ve ever seen! (Gene Thorp/Washington Post)

“I have no [expletiving] clue what we should be doing in Syria,” is not the only way of expressing that sentiment. You can also talk for hours! Here are some phrases to help!

8. “Well, it’s very complicated, and we must move decisively, swiftly, but not rashly, in a way that produces a constructive outcome.”

7. “I think this situation is parallel to [Something You Actually Do Know About, Even/Especially If That Situation Bears Little To No Resemblance To What's Going On -- The More Specific/Obscure The Better].” (This is a common strategy among people whose job is to talk all the time, some of whom suddenly have realized that what is currently happening in Syria is exactly parallel to something that happened in the 1980s under Reagan, whereas others counter that it is exactly like something that happened in the 1950s under Eisenhower, whereas still others allege that it most closely resembles the events leading up to the Defenestration of Prague. Conveniently, this usually coincides with your previous area of expertise, leading some people to suggest that “Syria is just like that farm policy thing I was talking about last week,” or, if this is improbable, “Syria is NOTHING like that farm policy thing I was talking about last week, and we need to REEVALUATE all our MOST BASIC ASSUMPTIONS!”)

Example: “This scenario is, I think, quite parallel to what faced General Stuart at Brandy Station, if John Esten Cooke is to be believed,” or “I think in this scenario, Assad is Grand Moff Tarkin, not prior to the battle of Yavin, mind you, nor post, but, rather, during.”

6. “Why are you talking about [other subject you are talking about] when … Syria is happening?”

5. “This is a serious issue that deserves serious debate.” (To quote The Reverend Al Sharpton on Wednesday, using a classic.)

4. “There are [SOME NUMBER -- 3 is probably best] of outcomes, none of them good.”

3. “This all comes down to [religion/geography/centuries of history/one man and his demons/deep-seated hatreds that have long been waiting to simmer over/a match striking a tinder box or powder keg or something else that kindles well].” (Actually this works in all scenarios, not just foreign policy questions.)

2. “This is a real case of [metaphor or allusion gone horribly awry],” the [metaphor] being Assad.” Example: “I think we’ve put the cart so far before the horse here that the cart’s gone into orbit and the horse is just sitting there with Kim Jong Un sipping a cappuccino and wondering how he got to this place in life. The ‘horse’ being Assad.”

2. “I think we’re really back to [Thing That Happened In The Same Place, 150 to 2,000 Years Ago, But Things Are Probably The Same There Because This Place Is In An Area Of The World Referred To Only As A Direction Away From Where You Currently Are] all over again.” Bonus points if your example is fictional! Example: “I think what we’re seeing here is the same thing that Napoleon saw, which is why you should always stay west of the Caucasus! I think it’s west please say it’s west.” “King Tiglath Pileser would be sure disappointed if he could see his kingdom now.” “This is just another case of two little boys, call one Abel and the other Cain, messing around in a sandbox.”

1. I’m reminded of [Platitude or Saying Vague Enough That It Might Be Applicable] that [An Expert or Otherwise Famous Person] told me, on the eve of [Other Thing That Happened]. Example: “I think this can be summed up best in what Donald Rumsfeld said during the war in Iraq about “known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns,” which are, as we all know, the most dangerous kind of all.”

0. “All I know is, this is nothing like last time, and the outcome is difficult to forecast.” (Be careful of this one! It can sound dangerously close to admitting you know nothing! And you don’t want to be the guy ruining the party by admitting, “Well, to be frank, I have no idea what I’m talking about. My area is still what it was a week ago: farm policy! Please don’t ask me about Syria. I will have nothing insightful to say. Until just recently I thought Damascus was, like Eden, one of those places that exists only in the Bible. I am horribly, embarrassingly ignorant, and you should not give me airtime. Find someone who actually knows what it is he or she is talking about, who has actually paid attention to the area between the Bush era and today, and do not ask me, because my thinking on the subject is muddled.”

That has never prevented anyone from expounding at great length on any subject before.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.