In July 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama declared that the United States needed a foreign policy that reclaimed the moral high ground, saying, “This is our moment to renew the trust and faith of our people – and all people – in an America that battles immediate evils, promotes an ultimate good and leads the world once more.”
As president, Obama is responsible for keeping international terrorists at bay, and he has largely succeeded. He approached the challenge with a 21st century military mindset, relying heavily on technology. But it’s time to take a hard look at the long term cost of his approach, particularly in light of his stated foreign policy goal.
Consider events of three consecutive days last week:
On Wednesday, the president had to call an irate German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been told the National Security Agency was listening to her cellphone calls. He assured her that was not happening. Not now, anyway. He was vague about whether it ever happened. More countries chimed in on the outrage later in the week.
On Tuesday two respected groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, released separate reports, documenting dozens of civilian deaths in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Amnesty officials said some of the strikes could be classified as war crimes.
On Monday, the French government summoned Charles Rivkin, the U.S. ambassador, to demand an immediate explanation of reports that the NSA had recorded more than 70 million French phone calls over a 30-day period in 2012. The French said spying on allies was “unacceptable.”
That’s a matter of degree, of course. Countries spy on allies all the time. But the capacity to invade the personal privacy of millions of people is relatively new. And the potential of drones to take out terrorists without risking American lives must be almost irresistible to a president determined not to have another Sept. 11 on his watch.
Obama told French President Francois Hollande later in the week that the United States has begun to review the way it gathers intelligence in its pursuit of legitimate safety goals.
He has also said that a review of U.S. drone policy is in order; although, he maintains that all the targets have met his threshold of posing an imminent threat to U.S. interests. (People of Pakistan, who apparently see drones buzzing around like mosquitoes over a Mississippi swamp, may beg to differ.)
It’s naive to think a government could be totally transparent about strategies like eavesdropping and drones without destroying their effectiveness. But Obama has neglected to strike a defensible balance between these tactics and the moral imperative of a nation that – to borrow his words – “promotes an ultimate good.” He needs to identify that balance and reclaim the moral high ground. He should have done it before our top allies and groups like Amnesty International came at him.