Monday, June 10, 2013

Pro and Neo-con

My current conspiracy theory is that it was actually the Obama administration itself that leaked the information about the government’s massive collection of U.S. citizens’ communication data to The Guardian.

Why would it do that? Well for one thing, it has had the effect of drowning out a lot of the outrage over things going on with the IRS, the AP/Fox News kerfuffles and, what was the other one, oh yeah, Benghazi.

I’m being only partly facetious. Of all the brouhahas that have erupted over the past few weeks, what administration wouldn’t be happiest defending the surveillance “scandal”? After all, the main charge here is that government has been overzealous—if not overreaching—in trying to defend the country. That has to be kind of welcome after years of being criticized by security hawks for being weak on national defense.

Sure civil libertarians and, well, plain old libertarians are outraged. But most of the informed reaction has been that this is only what we would expect the government to be doing and it is overseen by Congress and court orders are still required for actually listening to conversations. Even a lot of people who were outraged that George W. Bush was doing this (although the full extent was not known back then) seem okay with it when it’s Barack Obama doing it.

The leaking of all the detail of this operation is kind of embarrassing and awkward for at least four reasons: 1) while the administration was busy naming a Fox reporter as a co-conspirator over a leak about North Korea, they got blindsided by a really serious leak; 2) while campaigning for president, Obama vehemently criticized exactly the kind of thing he has since been presiding over; 3) only a week or so before, the president gave a speech saying the war on terror was winding down; and 4) the IRS targeting of conservative groups only reminds people that even government activities that begin with the best of motives can eventually be bent to be used as leverage against political opponents.

The before-and-after snapshot that the whole surveillance episode gives us of the president highlights a contradiction (some might call it hypocrisy) in Obama’s rhetoric. When he gives a speech in public, he comes off as very idealistic and aspiring to higher values. But there is also the tough Obama who is very strict on security leaks and on deportations and who had no apparent problem embracing and deploying drone technology to target and assassinate individuals—even a couple who held U.S. citizenship.

This duality in Obama’s leadership style was on exhibit in the two appointments he made last week. In the U.S. media there was more focus on Susan Rice (the new National Security Adviser), but in Ireland Rice was a mere second banana to Dublin-born Samantha Power, nominated as United Nations Ambassador. Her Irish connection was naturally highlighted, although you could feel the newsreader wince internally over the sound clip where Power told how, as a child, she practiced in front of a mirror to get rid of her Irish brogue.

What is interesting about these appointments is that these women have long been advocates for moral foreign interventionism, especially Power. She won a Pulitzer Prize for criticizing the United States’ weakness in preventing genocide in places like Rwanda and the Balkans. Such has been her commitment to the issue that her appointment actually won praise from some who would normally be criticizing the administration—neo-conservatives like Max Boot, John McCain and Joe Lieberman.

Power and Rice are said to have argued internally for more intervention in Syria but were rebuffed. So the question is, are these appointments mere window dressing or does the president intend to become more interventionist in the world? To date, he has taken every chance he could to pull back from entanglements abroad.

No one has a good strategy for Syria, especially at this point in the conflict where Bashar al-Assad is roaring back, thanks in small part to (shades of the Cold War) support from Russia. My best guess is that Obama will follow the expert example of Bill Clinton. Not his example on the Balkans. To his credit, Clinton did intervene in the Balkans—and he didn’t even have the U.N.’s blessing—although not where it might have prevented or stopped the horrific ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

No, the president will probably follow Clinton’s example on Rwanda, i.e. standing by and doing nothing and then showing how much he cares by giving speeches, after he is out of office, saying that his biggest regret was not doing anything about Rwanda when he had the chance. For Clinton it was politically a win-win. Not so much, though, for the Rwandans. Let’s hope, against hope, it goes better for the Syrians.

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