Obama’s Dragnet: Speech versus Action

Today I explore the relationship between Obama’s national security address with his surveillance policies. Many see the distance between his speech and action as proof of their cynicism about Obama and more generally about American politicians. I note that the distance can provide the grounds for the opposite of cynicism, i.e. consequential criticism. But for this to be the case, there has to be public concern, something I fear is lacking.

I am an Obama partisan, as any occasional reader of this blog surely knows. One such reader, in a response to my last post on Obama’s national security address, on Facebook declared: “your endless contortions in support of this non-entity make you look increasingly ridiculous.” He wondered: “Is this really what a ‘public intellectual’ looks like today?” I am not profoundly hurt by this. I am enjoying the one time in my life that I actually support an American political leader in power. I was an early supporter of the State Senator from the south side of Chicago and find good reasons to appreciate his leadership to this day. Through his person and his words, he has changed American identity, to the pleasure of the majority and the great displeasure to a significant minority. Obamacare is his singular accomplishment. He rationally responded to the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, despite sustained opposition. Perhaps he could have done more, but powerful forces were aligned against him. He has carefully redirected American foreign policy, cooperating with allies and the international organizations, engaging enemies, working to shift the balance between diplomacy and armed force. Obama has worked to move the center left, as I analyze carefully in Reinventing Political Culture and I applaud his efforts even when he has not succeeded.

That said I have been disappointed on some matters, and I want to be clear about them here. In my judgment, the surge in Afghanistan didn’t make much sense. The escalating use of drones, without clear and public guidelines, has concerned me: the killing of innocents was not recognized, as drone warfare contributed to the long history of placing civilians and non combatants at increasing risk. (In this sense, drone warfare and terrorism are two sides of the same coin.) And now this week, there is the news about “Obama’s dragnet” (as The New York Times put it), Obama’s continued and even escalating mass surveillance. Although this was very much implied in news reports before the revelations (they are not really shocking to the informed), reading the details, particularly as reported by Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian,  underscores fundamental problems.

I wanted to see a “strong black line” drawn between the war on terrorism and the rule of fear after “9/11,” and the Obama era. I wanted to see national hysteria replaced by sensible policy, to bracket the governance of Bush-Cheney in the same way that McCarthyism was bracketed and criticized. The latest news underscores that in significant ways this has not happened. The line has been thinly sketched rather than clearly drawn. Some things have changed, much hasn’t.

This is why I thought Obama’s national security speech was so important. He was announcing a change in policy, moving from a “war on terror” to a struggle against terrorists, using normal law enforcement methods. This was a change I had been waiting for. But what then to make of the latest revelations?

Many have expressed outrage, with the editorial writers of The New York Times leading the way. Others see confirmation of their strong civil liberty criticisms of the President on national security, with Greenwald leading here, and a broad swath of media commentators following. I find myself in between these positions, not persuaded by either, but also crucially not convinced by those who suggest that the surveillance is no big deal and argue that it is legal and necessary. That is the reasoning which must be put to rest.

Although clearly Obama’s speech and action conflict, drawing the conclusion that he is just a hypocrite, another cynical politician administering American hegemonic power, I believe, is mistaken. This is how Greenwald responded to Obama’s national security speech, as I analyzed in my last post written before the publication of the Snowden revelations. We now know what Greenwald knew, but we didn’t. He had inside knowledge of Snowden’s leaks. Yet, as Greenwald explains his position now, I am uncomfortable. He is too sure that the only reason for secrets is to protect the prerogatives of the powerful: too fast to dismiss threats to national security.

On the other hand, I find Obama puzzling, even schizophrenic in his response to the Snowden leaks. He welcomes the debate we must have (especially now) about the need to balance security and civil liberties concerns, while he also denounces leaks and leakers who instigate discussion. He is obviously caught between his desire as a principled centrist to have all with opposing views discuss a pressing problem, and his belief that national security requires official secrets. He wants to have a full public debate, taking into account all reasonable points of view, but he worries that this may lead to giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.” Disciplined governance is pitted against democratic deliberations. And there is a clear political calculation. Public opinion is more moved by security than by civil liberty concerns.

Here is the significance of his speech at the National Defense University, remembering that the speech preceded the revelation for the public, but for Obama it was the other way around. The speech was a response to the overt and covert policies that together have made “the war on terror.”

Perhaps, if we are still in a post 9/11 “war,” the argument for official secrets and escalating compromises in civil liberties is justified. But, if in fact, the war is over, as Obama announced in his speech, the continuation of war policies has to be critically appraised. Obama suggested in his speech a logical conclusion: “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” In these terms: how can the broad, not just targeted, surveillance by the National Security Agency be justified? Obama’s speech strongly suggests that it can’t. Obama’s words provide solid grounds for opposition to his administration’s policies, including those revealed about the NSA.

I still support Obama. I hope that under public pressure he follows the logic of the position he outlined in his national security speech. But I am concerned that the pressure may not be there.

  • Pait

    I think the program would be acceptable if it had been properly discussed and approved by the legislators. As it is, it may be legal, but “may be legal” is a very low standard that doesn’t inspire any confidence.

    The problem is that Congress failed to do its job, and deferred to president Bush. Then Obama had the choice of ending the program, which would antagonize the chicken hawks in the Republican party; asking for proper legislative authorization, which wouldn’t work because Congress would not miss an opportunity for inaction; or leaving it as he found it. The latter alternative had worked until now, but is indefensible. So the schizophrenic response is an understandable consequence of past decisions.

    Taking a step back, the theme of congressional irresponsibility is recurring. The whole debate about the Iraq war would have been clearer if Congress had done its constitutional job and voted for or against declaring war on Saddam Hussein’s regime, and later making peace with the new government. That would have forced a discussion on who we were fighting, and for what. Delegating the power to the president with an “Authorization for use of military force” protected politicians against the judgement of the people, but created a mess.

    Irresponsibility is a defining characteristic of Brazil’s congress. That, plus tropical storms in June, are evidences of tropicalization, a form of climate change if you want.