Scared Tactics

Why America will be paying for decades for a foreign policy based on fear.

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.

In some cases, as with the overreach by U.S. surveillance agencies, the country falls into the trap that led to the internment camps for Japanese-Americans. A threat is overstated to the point that it forces the country to compromise its values and justifies taking sweeping actions that likely could have been avoided by other approaches -- whether more legwork (good old-fashioned police investigations) or paperwork (using existing legal procedures and guidelines). Furthermore, of course, it is also likely that options existed for additional investments in manpower or that new programmatic initiatives could have reduced what real risks existed in systematic and effective ways that did not violate the ideals the United States was theoretically trying to defend.

It should also be observed that an element of political calculus almost certainly drove the Obama team to embrace and expand the Bush-era surveillance programs -- the anxiety that if an attack did take place and the programs had been rolled back, they would have a higher level of culpability.

Of course, as Clinton suggested in his remarks before the McCain Institute, fear of culpability carries its own risks. Thus far, the administration has failed to successfully mobilize its allies to take action to contain the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and effectively weaken Bashar al-Assad's regime because it has noted the absence of a clear, coherent, virtuous opposition to which the United States could be allied. The irony that this is America's stance in a country that borders Iraq and is in the same neighborhood as Afghanistan and Libya (where the United States placed bets on the most dubious sorts of "frenemies") is pointed. That said, the risks of inaction should the crisis spill more dangerously into Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, or Turkey also pose a risk for Obama. In short, the absence of an easy answer does not obviate the need for an answer -- some effective way to contain the real risks to national interests posed by spread of chaos in Syria, its spillover to the region, a possible future government in Damascus hostile to a Washington seen as abetting that chaos, and U.S. failure to take advantage of the potential to seriously limit Iranian influence in a vital part of the Middle East.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell once observed "you break it, you own it," but he should have added a corollary: If failure to act invites a greater calamity, you own that too. As few have observed more persuasively than Samantha Power, America's next ambassador to the United Nations and the author of the profound A Problem from Hell (one of the 10 greatest books on international relations I have ever read), we have a century of genocides for which our inaction was partially responsible that should be on our consciences -- even if they are not. Clinton, of course, when speaking at the McCain event, noted that these issues certainly still weigh heavily on his mind given his own inaction in Rwanda. It should be interesting to see how Obama addresses this point when he visits Africa this month.

Prudence is a term often invoked by the fearful for doing too much or too little. But it shouldn't obscure what is really happening. Our insecurity rather than our goals is too often playing too great a role in driving our actions. Whether this is a momentary anomaly or longer-term symptom common to declining nations that have lost confidence in important aspects of themselves remains to be seen.

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David Rothkopf


Do Americans realize their privacy rights have been obliterated?

For a generation of Americans, it is hard to imagine a tragedy more gut-wrenching than the slow-motion horrors we watched on the morning of September 11, 2001. The violation and shock of the planes' impact into the twin towers. The spreading flames and smoke and the desperate souls who plummeted to their deaths rather than face an even more horrifying end in the offices in which they were trapped. And then the crumbling of the towers themselves.

Yet despite the fact that this nightmare still haunts many of us, we have come to learn that the violence done by terrorists that day to the United States and to the world would subsequently be compounded and in many ways exceeded as a consequence of our own responses to the attacks. Because in reaction to the disaster were wrought new disasters, each of which touched more lives and cut us again to the quick, eviscerating crucial elements of who we were or aspired to be.

The invasion of Iraq. The violation of international laws and the public trust that were the prerequisites for that catastrophe. Guantanamo. Government-sanctioned torture. Abu Ghraib. Kill lists. The serial violation of the sovereignty of foreign states in the name of self-defense. Atrocities. Wasted resources. Literally hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded falling in a bloody swath across the Middle East and into South Asia.

Each has amplified the initial losses of 9/11. Each has reaffirmed that the greatest ally of the terrorist is the terrorized victim who becomes a victimizer.

Now, yet again, with the revelations of the surveillance techniques that the U.S. government has embraced in the past decade, we discover yet another casualty of 9/11, yet another piece of stark evidence that those wounds cut so deep that they led us to take leave of our senses and our values and that which is best about America -- indeed, that which is essential to the very ideas on which this country was established.

Democrats and Republicans, Bush and Obama, the public sector and its apparently willing partners in the private sector (some very well compensated, if apparently not well equipped to do their job in the secure manner that was required), all joined together to rationalize away centuries of laws and hard-won personal freedoms.

It is popular among certain cool, tough policy realists to shrug off these recent revelations about the National Security Agency as "old news," "the kind of thing we need to do to protect ourselves," a "cost of doing business in the modern world." How else, they ask, are we to protect ourselves from future attacks?

That such attacks seldom come is not relevant to them. That there are many other and better ways to stop or impede or detect such attacks seems not to matter. Nor apparently do the more important elements of the proper cost-benefit analysis that should have been conducted before the executive branch sought and the Congress approved these intrusive, over-reaching programs.

Because of course, the crucial question to ask is what do we sacrifice when we embrace the kind of pre-emptive, all-encompassing programs for collecting telephone call meta-data or email traffic that have been revealed to be going on for years in post-9/11 America, during the PTSD Era in U.S. policy-making.

In the first instance, we have the utter obliteration of basic and assumed privacy rights that are a foundation of our social order and were a goal of the system our forefathers imagined. Doubt it? What if government officials came to your home and said that they would collect all of your papers and hold onto them for safe-keeping, just in case they needed them in the future. But don't worry, they would offer not so very comfortingly, they wouldn't open the boxes until they had a secret government court order ... sometime, unbeknownst to you. You would and should consider that a gross violation of your rights.

You might also ask why the basic principles that once applied to wire taps -- a judge had to approve a narrowly construed warrant based on specific evidence that eavesdropping was necessary -- had been suspended? Or, if you were somewhat more sophisticated, you would ask why the government made the leap that somehow telephone metadata was not protected under the Fourth Amendment or why emails would be treated differently from phone calls or posted letters. (See Shane Harris' very good piece from today's FP on this subject.) You would be right to ask, of course. How doubly dangerous it is for us not only to break with the past, but to make up new law with enormous (and poorly understood) implications thanks to the quiet, rapid, and secret adoption of new information technologies without adequate forethought or national debate.

Finally, we have failed to ask how these policies will impact our efforts to promote U.S. interests worldwide. Imagine how relieved Xi Jinping and his delegation must have been to learn that President Obama and the other Americans who were going to lecture them in California were on the hot seat for a national surveillance program that would have made any autocrat anywhere jealous.

In this one over-reaction to 9/11 alone we have violated not only our values and the rights of our citizens, we have undercut our international standing and leverage with oppressive regimes worldwide. Whether this has been business as usual is irrelevant. What we should focus on now is how we stop it and force the government once again place our national character and the fundamental rights of Americans and ahead of the expedients offered up by hysterics and their allies among the disconnected and complacent.

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