As if the Tea Party/IRS mess isn’t enough, the White House has been shaken to its foundations by a series of dramatic and devastating revelations about the unsuspected reach of the government’s surveillance of the telephone records, email and other activities of US citizens without their knowledge. The President’s liberal base is stunned and appalled, with the New York Times editorial board hanging out the black crepe of official mourning. Al Gore twittered his disappointment and fear.
Republicans are divided. Jeffersonians and libertarians wave the flag of civil liberty, ready to join the liberal left in an attack on an administration that would have loved the Alien and Sedition Acts. Security focused Republicans are saying little; more concerned about the terror threat than some, they don’t want to see tools that may be necessary hastily stripped from the executive—though they have little reason to help President Obama out of his worst political scrape since Jeremiah Wright went under the bus.
The context was terrible; one chicken after another has been coming home to the White House roost: the AP subpoenas, the Fox investigation, the IRS Tea Party scandal. As the latest round of surveillance revelations exploded in the press like land mines under an armored truck, the White House visibly lost its poise and momentum. The reaction to reports that telephone carriers were providing the government with call logs was a tornado; when the Washington Post then reported that leading tech companies (reportedly including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple) were participating in a secret surveillance program known as PRISM, the Obama White House was facing a potential collapse in public trust.
There will be time as more details emerge to analyze the full dimensions of these programs, review the legal authority under which they were invoked, and come to some kind of public judgment about the limits on government snooping in a digital age. The answers are anything but easy; the dangers of terror and the dangers of tyranny are both very real. Too little surveillance could well endanger innocent life; too much will endanger our freedom. There are no perfect solutions to problems like these; we look forward to a thorough airing of the issues involved and an open legislative process that ensures the necessary safeguards are in place.
But as the MSM reels with Nixonian revelations about a man it has lionized, something important is being missed. There’s a connection between the President’s May 23 speech on the COFKAGWOT (the conflict formerly known as the global war on terror) declaring an end to the “war phase” of the struggle against terror and the secret intelligence system his administration has put in place. The two policies are joined at the hip, and while the President has likely understood this for a long time now, the political success of his foreign policy depended on keeping this truth concealed from his political allies in the US.
From the President’s point of view, the public belief that we have been engaged in a “war on terror” is part of the many sided problem he inherited from his predecessor. As long as that kind of military mindset dominates public thinking, even Democratic presidents will have to spend lots of money on defense. Tensions between America and Islam will fester, with the risk of more attacks and confrontations making things yet worse. The flexibility of presidents in reaching out to Islamic movements and governments, and perhaps also pressuring Israel to make more concessions in the hope of further reducing regional tensions, will also be limited. When they think the country is in danger, Jacksonians are vigilant and engaged; when they think all is well, they go back to sleep. This President wants them asleep, clinging to their guns and Bibles all they want, but not bothering their pretty little heads about American foreign policy.
From the day he took office, President Obama has sought to defuse the war and decrease public concern about it. He wants the war on terror to subside into a police action against an assortment of criminal gangs. He wants the war demilitarized, wound down and off the front page. America is tired of war, and the President wants to give it rest.
It is in many ways an excellent strategy, but it has one serious flaw: it leaves the President terribly vulnerable if a significant terror strike should succeed. In that important May 23 speech at the National Defense University announcing the end to the war on terror, the President called for a return to what a few years ago would have been called, derisively, a “September 10 mindset.”
Lethal, yet less capable, al-Qaida affiliates, threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad, homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We have to take these threats seriously and do all that we can to confront them. But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.
The President wants to end the national and international state of emergency that began on 9/11; he can only do this if he is very, very confident that no new 9/11-style attacks are going to take place.
To stand down from a war footing and build public confidence, the President must have excellent intelligence. He and his aides must know what any potential KSM-style attackers are whispering into their cell phones or tapping into their computers. He must know who is talking to whom, who is traveling where, what kind of financial flows are passing through the world’s banks, who is taking flying lessons or otherwise behaving suspiciously.
More than that, he has to be able to act. If terror is to be nipped in the bud, drones must fire down from the skies. If the al-Qaeda leadership is to remain stunned, scattered and incapable of large scale actions against the United States, houses in Waziristan must mysteriously blow up. American citizens making war against their homeland must die, even if that means they don’t get to hear their Miranda rights first.
President Obama’s core war strategy depends on massive intelligence capabilities that were undreamed of twenty years ago. It depends on the substitution of drones for troops. PRISM and similar programs aren’t a ghastly misstep or an avoidable accident. They are the essence of Obama’s grand strategy: public peace and secret war. To cool down the public face of the war, he must intensify the secret struggle.
There are many merits to this approach to the war. Projecting an image of unruffled calm demoralizes our foes and encourages our friends. Moreover, the President is right that the moral and political impact of a long war is bad for the country. It is not a desirable situation that a relative handful of extremists can force the United States onto a long term war footing. The public does not always support the wisest policies when it is terrified out of its mind. An emotional public opinion can lead to unfortunate statements and actions vis-à-vis Muslims here and abroad, actions that feed exactly the hate and extremism we seek to tamp down.
All these considerations are true and real, and we can certainly see why an American president, and especially why a liberal president, would find this course of action attractive. Unfortunately, this approach also has some drawbacks, and the eruptions of shock and anger about the intelligence operations and leak investigations reflect some basic weaknesses in the President’s chosen war strategy.
Here’s the big problem: to the degree that the strategy works, and the public begins to feel safe and the war atmosphere fades, the intelligence work and the drone strikes that the strategy requires look less and less justifiable. After all, the President’s message is that the threat is under control and the terrorists are on the run. Why then is the NSA tapping every phone and reading every email in the country?
As the gap grows between the public peace and the secret war, leaks about the war become more likely and more damaging. Those who service the secret war begin to wonder if what they are doing is right; they wonder if somebody shouldn’t blow the whistle on what begins to look like a massive deception of the public. And the more the administration has been putting out the ‘peace in our time’ vibe to the media, the more explosive is the news that in secret it is ramping up some of the most controversial aspects of W’s war policy to levels Dick Cheney could only dream about.
President Obama wants the global war on terror to look like a series of aggressive but normal police actions—but he can only maintain that appearance by the unremitting use of techniques and weapons that we rightly deny to ordinary police fighting ordinary crimes. The greater the President’s success at convincing us that the war is fading into the background, the more shock and anger he faces when (as inevitably happens) the nature of his war fighting strategies comes out into the open.
At this blog, we’ve always thought that the President would be better off to embrace the idea of a global conflict against a murderous ideology of hate. The sad reality is, as the President repeatedly acknowledged in his May 23 speech, that the hate groups aren’t going away anytime soon. In fact, we must expect them to evolve and develop new techniques, and we will have to be on our guard for an indeterminate time into the future. The level of threat is likely to rise and fall over time, and the nature of the threat is also likely to change, sometimes in ways we don’t like.
The Syrian conflict is training up new cadres of violent, America-hating extremists, many with excellent funding ties to well-connected and well-heeled funders in the Gulf. Between the stockpiles of weapons that we failed to lock down in Libya (after what happened in Iraq, this should have been a no-brainer) and the arms pumped into the Syria conflict and the new civil war in Iraq, the Middle East is going to have no shortage of weapons and no shortage of people who know how to use them for some time to come.
President Obama is now caught in a trap of his own making. By downplaying the threat and trying to create an atmosphere of peace and normality in the country, he has delegitimated the measures he believes that our safety requires. Having tried and failed to keep these secrets dark and hidden, he must now try to explain what many Americans will find inexplicable. If the terrorists are really on the run, and we can finally go back to a 9/10 state of mind, why are you assembling and wielding the most powerful and intrusive systems of surveillance ever conceived?
In a 9/12 world, these measures can be understood, though there are legitimate questions to be asked about oversight and slippery slopes. In a 9/10 world, they are much harder to justify. And so, Mr. President, the ball is in your court. Where exactly do we stand, and what kind of world are we living in today?
[Frowning Obama photo courtesy of Getty Images]