Behind closed doors but with language and intonation that ensured his remarks would be heard around the world, Bill Clinton last week said that U.S. President Barack Obama risks looking like a "wuss" and a "fool" by letting politics and a search for ideal solutions keep him from taking action to stop the slaughter in Syria.
Days later, speaking before a congressional committee on June 18, Gen. Keith Alexander, top man at the National Security Agency, and a phalanx of other top administration terror-fighters argued that the unprecedentedly sweeping measures undertaken by the U.S. government to gather telephone metadata, email communications, and Internet records had resulted in thwarting over 50 terrorism threats against the United States.
The two sets of statements might appear at first glance to be unrelated. But they hint at a shift that has taken place in U.S. policymaking in the years since the 9/11 attacks. The country has crossed the fine line that separates national security from national insecurity. Fear now seems to drive more of the country's policies than the vision, self-awareness, and courage that used to be the recipe for protecting and advancing U.S. interests internationally.
That is not to say that U.S. soldiers in the field or American law enforcement officers or the members of the intelligence community do not individually and collectively regularly display extraordinary courage. Nor is it to say that fear plays no role in sound policymaking. Sound risk assessment and management are as essential to getting approaches right as bravado and overconfidence are deadly.
But at the highest level, throughout George W. Bush's administration and continuing in a number of key instances during the Obama years, we have too often seen policy promulgated as a consequence of our fear of overstated risks and worst-case scenarios, and, most disturbingly of all, as Clinton alluded to, as a result of the fear of politicians that they might suffer in opinion polls or at the ballot box as a consequence of a misstep or unpopular action.
From the invasion of Iraq to the Patriot Act to the embrace of torture to the expansion of domestic surveillance programs to the failure to intervene earlier in Syria to the constant shifting of "red lines" in that country or Iran to the bumbling and lack of follow-through in Libya to the failure to stand up to abuses by "allies" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq or by rivals like Russia or Iran, fear has warped Americans' perspectives, justified alternatively both overreaction and inaction, and enabled the United States to rationalize bad policies into prudent ones on an ongoing basis for over a decade.
Against the existential threats of Nazism and Soviet communism, the United States faced oblivion squarely in the eye and did not flinch, recognizing that steadfastness, clear goals, and the willingness to undertake both political and military risks were crucial to defending the American way of life. There were times in those eras when Americans did let their fears drive them, however, and in every instance -- from internment camps for Japanese-Americans to the incineration of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, from McCarthyism to the miscalculations in Vietnam -- the United States harmed its national standing and took actions that are debated to this day.