- By Peter Feaver
Back in June when the controversy over the operations of the NSA started to crescendo, President Obama went on Charlie Rose to join the conversation. He gave the distinct impression that he was inviting the public to join in him a thorough soul-searching dialogue concerning the thorny trade-offs between civil liberty and national security, much as he had invited the public to debate drones a month earlier.
Since then there has been a very lively debate, of a sort. Barely a day goes by without another purportedly damning revelation in the media. The voices of the critics have been heard, loud and clear.
The voices on the other side? Not so much. Yes, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander has mounted a vigorous defense. Secretary of Defense Hagel has spoken up for the NSA. And there have been a few balanced debates in the public. My own organization, Duke’s Program in American Grand Strategy is co-hosting one of those this Monday: a conversation between Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman and former NSA head Michael Hayden.
But you would look in vain to find many examples of President Obama joining in the conversation he himself seemed to be calling for a few months ago. It is almost as if the NSA is supposed to be viewed as some sort of independent agency, only distantly connected to the Obama administration, rather than a vital part of Obama’s own national security team.
A debate of all against the NSA (and a few former NSA employees) is never going to be a balanced conversation. President Obama must engage personally.
I understand that the president has had his hands full with the Obamacare fiasco. While most of the media attention has focused on the mismanagement that led to the poorly designed website, the part that has surprised me the most are reports that President Obama repeatedly told the American public untruths about the reform — untruths that he knew were untrue and that his policy advisors had even recommended against saying because they were untrue, only to be over-ruled by political advisors who insisted that the president keep misleading the public because it helped him politically in the short run. The President’s tepid half-apology — he expressed regret that people are losing their health insurance and tried to spin away the central issue of purposively misleading the American public with "we weren’t as clear as we needed to be in terms of the changes that were taking place" — probably won’t resolve the scandal. Even a president as well-protected by the media as this one would have a problem given the facts of this case, and so this scandal will continue to siphon off White House attention and rhetorical resources.
I also understand that President Obama has had an unprecedented reluctance to use his bully pulpit to mobilize public support for his controversial war policies. I do not think in modern American history there has ever been a war leader who spent less effort explaining the importance of the wars he has ordered men and women to fight on the country’s behalf.
In view of how much damage the Obamacare troubles is causing the administration and how little Obama likes to defend his war policies, perhaps it seems naive to encourage the president to engage rhetorically on national security.
However, I think it would actually help him politically. Presidents have the rhetorical advantage when it comes to national security, and surely it is more advantageous for him to be talking about the steps his administration is taking to track down terrorists or to put Afghanistan on a stable trajectory than it is to be talking about the load times for the healthcare.gov website.
And it is the right thing to do as a matter of policy. President Obama inherited a national security toolkit more capable than his predecessor inherited, but if he does not act, Obama could end up bequeathing to his successor a far less capable toolkit. Although there is room for reforms, unless President Obama engages meaningfully in the debate, there is a real risk that even the well-meaning reformers will throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. President Obama can help prevent that from happening, but only if he will engage.
Yet it appears he will only engage if he personally can be tagged with the issue. He is speaking about Obamacare. Maybe he could be induced to speak about Obamaintel.