FP Explainer

Obama's Definitely American, But Could He Become President of Some Other Country?


After weeks of grandstanding by a certain orange-haired reality show star, the White House has released copies of President Barack Obama's long-form birth certificate. While Obama had already released his legally binding "certificate of live birth" during his campaign for president, the hope is that the full certificate will finally put to rest the suspicions of 1 in 5 Americans that the president was not born in the United States. But this does raise another question: If Obama is definitely, positively, absolutely, beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt, a natural-born citizen of the United States, does that put him out of the running to be president of any other country?

Not necessarily. Article II of the U.S. Constitution specifies that "No Person except a natural born Citizen" is eligible to be elected president. But not every country is quite so specific. Let's take Kenya, for example, the country where Obama's father was born, and where many "birthers," despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, believe the president himself was too. The Kenyan constitution specifies that the president must be a "citizen of Kenya," have "attained the age of thirty-five years," and be "registered in some constituency as a voter in elections to the National Assembly." Obviously, only one of those applies to Obama, but as the son of a Kenyan father, he is entitled to citizenship, so if he were willing to establish residency in the country, he could theoretically make a go of it. (Look out, Mwai Kibaki. Obama has a 95 percent approval rating in Kenya.)

On the other hand, if Obama decided he wanted to be president of his boyhood home, Indonesia, he'd be out of luck. According to article six of the constitution, the president must be a "native-born Indonesian."

In many countries, particularly those with large diaspora communities, foreign-born leaders are not unusual. Ireland's most famous 20th-century president, Eamon de Valera, was a New Yorker by birth. In Israel, President Shimon Peres was born in Poland, and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- who would take Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's job if he were to become incapacitated -- was born in Moldova. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was not only born in Riyadh but maintains Saudi citizenship.

In the countries of the Commonwealth, the technical head of state -- the queen of England -- is by definition the citizen of another country. Canada's former Governor-General Michaëlle Jean -- the queen's representative to the government and acting head of state -- is not only an immigrant from Haiti but was a dual French citizen until she took the job. 

In Germany, any citizen over 40 is eligible to be elected president. France's constitution doesn't specify that the president be born in the country. "Any citizen over 50 years" can be president of Italy.

Many Latin American countries -- like their neighbor to the north -- do specify that the president be native-born. Mexico's president, for instance, has to be a citizen by birth with at least one Mexican parent and 12 years' residency. Brazil's president must also be born in the country.

Peru has even had its own birther controversy, thanks to media reports that former president Alberto Fujimori was born in Japan. The president produced his Peruvian birth certificate for analysis in 1997, but some doubts persist.

Iran's president not only has to be of "Iranian origin," he must exhibit "trustworthiness and piety." Presumably, being a secret Christian would be a disqualification from that office.

It's theoretically possible for someone who wasn't born in Britain, or even a citizen, to be elected prime minister. The prime minister is a member of a parliament who is chosen by members of his or her party. According to British law, an MP must be "18 years of age, and a British citizen, or citizen of a Commonwealth country or the Republic of Ireland." It would probably be pretty tough for someone from Ireland or the Bahamas to get the job, but there's nothing legally stopping them. To date, only one British prime minister -- Bonar Law, originally of New Brunswick -- has been born outside the British Isles.

In any event, if Obama decides he's sick of being president of a country where 20 percent of the people don't believe he's a citizen, and he's willing to go through the trouble of becoming a citizen and resident somewhere else, he does have a few options.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

FP Explainer

Does the CIA Need a Country's Permission to Spy on It?

No, but sometimes it helps.

Pakistan's military is demanding that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sharply cut back its activities in the country in the wake of undercover agent Raymond Davis's arrest on murder charges and subsequent release. In addition to scaling back the number of CIA drone strikes on Pakistani targets, Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has insisted on the withdrawal of all contractors working for the CIA and all operatives like Davis, who are working in "unilateral" assignments, meaning that only one country (read: not Pakistan) is aware of their presence. But since when does the CIA need a country's permission to conduct intelligence operations? Isn't the whole point that the local government isn't supposed to know they're there?

Yes and no. There are two types of CIA agents operating abroad. Declared agents, whom the host government -- but not the public or media -- are aware of, and undeclared ones, who are operating without the local government's consent. Most CIA stations have a mix of both -- those operating with the consent and awareness of the authorities, and those operating in the shadows.

Davis, a CIA contractor who was tracking the activities of a number of militant groups while officially in the country as a member of the U.S. embassy's logistical staff, would have fallen into the undeclared category. Davis's case is actually an illustrative example of why undeclared agents are needed, even in a country with an ostensibly friendly government such as Pakistan: The militant group he was focused on, Lashkar-e-Taiba, is believed to have long-standing ties with the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence service. 

It's impossible to know just how many declared agents the CIA posts worldwide, but as the agency has shifted toward focusing on nonstate actors and terrorist threats, partnerships with local governments are often critical, with sometimes surprising effects. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2010 that the CIA station chief in Kabul, a former Marine in his 50s known to his colleagues as "Spider," has become a pivotal behind-the-scenes power broker in Afghanistan, having developed a far closer relationship with President Hamid Karzai than his U.S. diplomatic and military counterparts. One former colleague of Spider's even described the station chief as Karzai's "security blanket."

It should also be pointed out that just because an agent is "undeclared" doesn't mean that the local government doesn't know about him. The Russian spy ring deported from the United States last year was undercover, but reportedly well known to U.S. authorities for years before its presence was made public.

What makes the Pakistani case unusual is the degree of publicity surrounding it: These conversations usually happen behind closed doors. After the extremely unpopular decision to release Davis, the Pakistani government is likely looking to demonstrate that it isn't overly beholden to the CIA. That doesn't mean the CIA has to listen, however.

The "unilateral" or "undeclared" agents that Kayani wants out of the country are precisely the ones who don't bother to ask for permission to be there. Given the security threats present in Pakistan, it's a safe bet that the CIA will continue to operate there on some level, whether or not it has an invitation.

Thanks to Paul Pillar, director of graduate studies at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies and a former CIA intelligence officer.

David Burnett/Newsmakers