The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

An Independence Day oratory on America’s national security paranoia.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, July 4 was typically celebrated with an oration -- above all in New England, the cradle and battlefield of the American Revolution. The great orators of the North, including Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, and John Quincy Adams, each delivered many such addresses. The speaker was expected to read the Declaration of Independence as a reminder to his audience of the sacred principles upon which the Republic had been founded, to recall in shamelessly purple language the heroism and sacrifice of an earlier generation, and then, if so inclined, to descant upon the great issue of the day -- slavery, or federalism, or relations with the European powers. I will spare you the first two elements and proceed directly to the last:

The American people have learned in recent weeks that their government has been engaged in a vast surveillance effort of which they knew nothing. The revelations of spying by the National Security Agency have provoked outrage, and bitter mockery, not from the enemies of President Barack Obama, in whom disingenuous shock has become an ingrained reflex, but from his allies -- from Democratic legislators, liberal activists, and European leaders and intellectuals.

The president has sought to assure the American people that the programs are not directed against them, and that intelligence agencies will not be able to listen to their phone calls or read their emails. He and other officials have also observed that both the U.S. Congress and a special federal court known as the FISA court oversee the programs, and prevent abuses. No abuses, in fact, have been reported. But for passionate defenders of liberty -- one of the "unalienable rights" which, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed to the world, governments are established to safeguard -- the sweeping collection of "metadata" in the United States and of actual communications abroad is incompatible with democracy. The abuse is the act itself.

But we do not live in Jefferson's world. Virtually all developed democracies have intelligence agencies; all spy on one another. We accept inroads on our liberty in the name of many goods -- security, convenience, and above all the pursuit of happiness. Our innocence in such matters has been fatally compromised. It is hyperbolic, and even hysterical, to say, as Glenn Greenwald has, that the United States has a secret plan "to destroy privacy and anonymity not just in the United States but around the world." It is equally excessive to lionize Edward Snowden, the former NSA contract employee who exposed the programs, as a heroic defender of democracy in the face of authoritarian menace. Surveillance, even on a giant scale, is not conspiracy, or murder.

What Snowden revealed must be fixed, rather than abolished. And it can be. Among other things, Obama can, as Jeffrey Rosen recently suggested, publish the secret memos that justify the programs, fix legal doctrines that offer the state too much scope for information-gathering, and stop targeting so many leakers for criminal prosecution. He must also bring more transparency to the decisions of the FISA courts. Democracies must be able not only to have secrets, but even to collect secrets. But they must do so with, to use another phrase from Jefferson, the consent of the governed.

And yet, in conceding this, another, perhaps deeper, discomfort remains. The United States has erected this colossal machinery of information-gathering for one overwhelming reason -- to stop terrorism. In the name of fighting terrorism it has launched hundreds of drone strikes, shrouding that program in secrecy as well; preserved the prison at Guantanamo, holding prisoners with no prospect of trial and trying others in a military tribunal; converted the CIA into a paramilitary organ; and hounded journalists for publishing secrets. All of these policies have been promulgated by a president who was a scholar of constitutional law -- because the overwhelming fear of another terrorist attack has made what once might have felt repugnant to him seem necessary.

Fear has become America's permanent state -- and fear of fear. Thomas Friedman argued in the New York Times that it is best to accept the surveillance program as it is because another terrorist incident would make the American people demand much graver violations of liberty and privacy in the name of security. We are, that is, only one incident away from Glenn Greenwald's nightmares. But perhaps that's not so. Government officials wildly overreacted to the Boston Marathon bombing by locking down the metropolitan area; but the citizens themselves never lost their composure. Are Americans elsewhere more frightened than they are in Boston?

Barack Obama once promised to end "the color-coded politics of fear." He has jettisoned the color code, but he has made few inroads on the fear. The very fact that this civil libertarian president has approved so many onerous programs -- that he has acknowledged their necessity -- isn't necessarily a sign to Americans of how very great is the threat that faces them. Perhaps it's a sign that Obama knows that his opponents would try to whip up a national outbreak of hysteria should a major attack occur on his watch. And so he caters to that fear, and hereby helps keep it alive.

Democracies, precisely because they rely upon the consent of the governed, must forever be turning to the people to ask them to weigh against one another those goods which they wish the state to provide. How many guns against how much butter? How much regulation against how much untrammeled enterprise? How much liberty against how much security? And yet this public exercise becomes an empty ritual when the weight on one side of the scale is deemed infinite. This is true whether we call that weight "the free market" or "stopping terrorism." These are goods, but they are limited goods. George W. Bush went to war in Iraq in the name of counterterrorism; consider the staggering costs of that venture.

Barack Obama wants -- desperately -- to return America's attention to building prosperity at home. But what has he done -- and what political risk has he incurred -- to minimize the national preoccupation with "another attack"? He often seems like a prisoner of the office. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to argue that with the rise of the "national security state" in the years after World War II, every president began his day with a terrifying intelligence briefing which left no doubt that his great responsibility was to protect the American people from danger, not to promote their welfare. That, too, is a balance -- a balance gone terribly awry. Perhaps Obama should occasionally let the Department of Education deliver the President's Daily Briefing. He needs to remind himself -- and us -- of why he is there.

Despite the Orwellian fear-mongering, the United States is less likely than almost any of the other democracies to fall prey to an overweening, all-pervasive state. Jefferson's heritage is very much alive: Americans have distrust of the state deep in their blood. But America's geographical remove, its long generations of safety between two oceans, accustomed its citizens to a degree of physical security unimaginable elsewhere; and this, in turn, accentuated the national sense of anxiety over the global threat of communism, and then the fear and the fury which came with the attacks of 9/11. These were, and are, real dangers; they justify some sacrifice of our liberty, or at least of our privacy; but they are finite. Terrorism does not threaten America's future, or its institutions. If this president is to be remembered by history the way he wishes to be, he must begin reducing that threat to its true dimensions.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Squeal Like a Pig

Why Putin actually loves tweaking the United States over Edward Snowden, and why China’s too smart to bother.

There must be a Mandarin equivalent to the Russian adage President Vladimir Putin used to explain why keeping Edward Snowden wasn't worth the cost to Russia's relations with the United States -- "it's like shearing a pig: there's lots of squealing and little fleece." (How about: "It's like deep-frying a cricket: a nice snack, but you can't feed your family"?) Still, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the Chinese leadership, stayed mum when Snowden passed through their hands. The Chinese, unlike the Russians, do not like to give the impression that they take pleasure in watching America squeal.

The Snowden affair has offered a strange experiment in which a U.S. hostage to fortune has been delivered, first to China, and then to Russia. Each has the United States over a barrel. Or rather, each has had a pig to shear, if they cared to. And what they do with that pig tells you something about how they think about their relationship with Washington. It hasn't been pretty, of course, and the White House has gotten very hot under the collar. But they've behaved better than they could have, and better than they would have a generation ago.

First, a caveat: Snowden passed through the hands of Hong Kong, not Chinese authorities. This may be one and the same thing. Last Sunday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the Obama administration was "just not buying" that the decision to let Snowden travel onwards, rather than to turn him over to American authorities, was made by local officials rather than by Beijing. When I asked National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden if the White House had specific evidence of a backstage Chinese role, she responded that Carney "was referencing China's traditional role in Hong Kong's foreign affairs." Snowden's Hong Kong lawyer has said that a Chinese "intermediary" visited Snowden and told him that he was not welcome to stay. But Beijing has denied playing a role, and at least claims to resent the White House tongue-lashing.

China's call, if it was China's call, was unambiguous: Get rid of him. "What was clear," a State Department official told me, "was that both China and Hong Kong, but especially China, wanted to have done with this." Turning Snowden over to the United States, as an ally would have done, was unthinkable: Imagine the United States doing the same with a Chinese fugitive. At the same time, granting Snowden the asylum he sought in Hong Kong -- and which both local and Chinese public opinion seemed to favor -- would have been the overtly hostile act of an adversary. Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, points out that Xi had just conducted his confab with Barack Obama at Sunnylands, which in turn teed up the upcoming U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. This was, Lieberthal notes, "the last thing in the world they wanted in their lap." It also makes Lieberthal wonder why the White House was hurling rhetorical thunderbolts at Beijing.

Snowden apparently now dwells in the limbo of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport transit lounge. He has expressed no desire to stay in Russia; the era when "defectors" fled to the West's ideological rivals is long gone, and of course you would have to be mighty fervid to trade Honolulu for Moscow. In any case, Putin, too, appears to want him gone. "The sooner he chooses his final destination," the Russian president said, "the better it is for him and Russia." Putin also has a relationship -- albeit a tattered one -- to protect. Having just held his extremely uncomfortable first bilateral with Obama, Putin "does not want to throw the relationship into the toilet," as Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, puts it. Of course, the fact that Snowden hasn't gone anywhere, yet, casts some doubt on Moscow's eagerness to have him gone.

Critics on the right are forever urging policymakers to throw off the fiction of common interests. A recent piece about U.S.-China relations in The National Interest claims that, "Pretending to have a partnership and shared interests can only lead to growing frustration in the relationship." Well, no. Allies have a "partnership." But states that participate in the global commons of the market system do, indeed, have "shared interests." China may try to rig the system on its behalf, whether hacking the computers of foreign corporations or subsidizing domestic industries, but it must accept the fundamental rules of the game in order to win. China tried playing a different game for 40 years, and realized that it was losing. That's why China now has too much fish to fry with the West to waste time shearing pigs.

The situation is different with Russia. Putin channels Russia's sullen resentment at its second-class status. Maximizing Russia's economic opportunities may matter less to him than catering to, and exploiting, the national sense of wounded pride. And since Russia has so little trade with the United States, poking Washington carries only modest economic risks. Not for nothing has he made Secretary of State John Kerry wait for three hours, and Obama for 30 minutes. More important, Putin has backed Syria's Bashar al-Assad to the hilt, though doing so has wrecked Russia's reputation in much of the Arab world; he wants to hold on to an important client, but he is also determined to make the United States and the West pay the highest possible price for meddling with that relationship.

Russia, for all its weakness, seems more dangerous than China, precisely because Putin has turned the zero-sum calculus into a matter of supreme national interest. He doesn't need the fleece, but he clearly does enjoy making the pig squeal. And as a European diplomat said to me the other day, Russia loves a self-destructive hero. Putin may well be torn between disposing of Snowden as swiftly as possible and milking, or shearing, the situation for all it's worth. He has to continue delivering prosperity, or at least security, and he has good reason to worry that falling oil prices, dismal productivity, and non-existent innovation threaten his popularity, and his legacy.

Who wants to take Snowden? Cuba, Venezuela, maybe Ecuador -- or maybe not. Insignificant countries may reasonably calculate that they get more mileage from defying Washington than they do from cooperating, since the currency of anti-Americanism glitters more brightly for them than does actual currency. (And Venezuela has the oil wealth to underwrite its gestures.) But Washington can live with enemies like that. And it's reasonable to hope that such self-defeating states will eventually come to their senses.

The United States does have a formidable enemy -- but we can see it in the mirror. China's aggression toward its neighbors in the South China Sea, or its assault on the computers of U.S. companies, poses less of a threat to U.S. interests than does America's own failure to educate its citizens or build and repair vital infrastructure -- both of which China is doing, legally and openly, at an astonishingly rapid clip. The United States doesn't really have enemies any more. It has rivals -- lots and lots of rivals. And right now, it's defeating itself.