Virtually everyone I know who does not work directly for the Obama Administration has conflicting reactions about Snowden. No one wants to see someone breach their agreement to maintain the secrecy of information, and I think most of us agree that the federal government needs to maintain certain secrets — particularly as it relates to international affairs. Yet, I think most of us also appreciate the light that Mr. Snowden has shone on the sweeping domestic intelligence-gathering that has occurred, as a matter of course, in the Land of the Free. We cringe when Snowden appears to be consorting with countries and groups that may be seeking to tap into his knowledge and to use his odd predicament to the disadvantage of America. At the same time, some of us are troubled by the tactics the U.S. is using to try to restrain Snowden’s movements and, in fact, are openly rooting for him to make it to a place of asylum.
I’m as two-minded about Snowden as anyone else, and I think there is a reason for our ambiguous reactions: we feel in our gut that there is a lot about this story that we don’t quite know yet, and internally we are reserving judgment until everything comes out. How in the world did this young man get access to so much information that the federal government is now depicting as crucial intelligence and national security information? What was his job, really? And what kind of security gaps do we have if a random contract employee can tap into reservoirs of confidential data, leak it, and then skedaddle? There’s also a lot to learn about what our government was doing, covertly, within our borders. For those of us who have grown increasingly concerned about the government’s increasing footprint in our lives, Snowden’s leaks have provided some additional issues to ponder.
So, I’m going to follow this fascinating story as Snowden’s fugitive status gets finally determined, additional information gets released, and court cases and likely congressional hearings proceed — and I’m going to try to keep an open mind about what we learn. I’m not quite ready to come down on one side or the other just yet.
The Obama Administration needs to take a careful look at what really happened in Benghazi and Cairo and what is really motivating the people who brought heavy weapons to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and seemed to good intelligence about where the American Ambassador was staying and where he would be moved. Now is not a time for phony spin or false bravado. Foreign policy isn’t a game; the lives of American diplomats, their families, and their staff demand a clear-eyed, careful appraisal of reality. Perhaps it’s time to stop hunting for video makers and start looking for an effective way to deal with a so-called “Arab spring” that appears to have morphed into anti-American totalitarianism.
Kish and I listened to President Obama’s speech tonight about the United States’ participation in the international coalition efforts in Libya. I am glad that he decided to speak to the American people about the nature and scope of the United States’ mission in Libya, because I think Presidents have a responsibility give the American people an explanation whenever they determine that military force is necessary.
I say this not because I think people should second-guess the President’s reasons for action — in my view, performing the kind of complex foreign policy balancing that tonight’s speech described is one of the reasons why we elect a President in the first place — but because I agree with the President that the decision to use military force is one of the most momentous decisions any President can make. The sons and daughters of Americans are put at risk whenever the United States military is summoned to duty, and it is not unfair to require a President to explain why that risk is necessary. Indeed, if a President were unable to bring himself to address the nation to provide such an explanation, that probably would indicate that the decision was not a well-reasoned one.
I do not understand why President Obama delayed in providing his explanation about Libya. Perhaps he wanted to wait until he could announce a date certain for the hand-off of responsibility to NATO forces, or until the military situation was clarified. In any case, I am relieved that he has now spoken to the nation and described the basis for his decision. Having that explanation, all Americans now can decide whether we agree with the President’s reasoning and can draw our own conclusions. That is how democracy should work.
This morning’s BBC features this headline “Libya: US urges tough United Nations resolution.” One can only imagine the rueful reaction to that headline in Benghazi, where rebels wait while the forces of Muammar Gaddafi close in, or in Tripoli, where Gaddafi and his bloodthirsty supporters must be laughing at an international community that has done little to prevent him from crushing the rebellion. Given what has happened over the past few weeks, this headline on a Reuters story may be more apt: “Leaders dither as Gaddafi hails final showdown.”
The reality is that urging “tough” United Nations resolutions doesn’t mean much in the face of guns and mercenaries. And saying that a foreign leader should leave doesn’t mean much, either. The days when pronouncements of American presidents left people quaking in their boots are long since over. If there is no resolve to take actions, words ring hollow — but even meaningless words and lack of action nevertheless can have negative consequences.
If, as now appears likely, Gaddafi survives the rebellion and executes or imprisons all of those who defied him, what message has been sent? If you live under an authoritarian regime and are considering a rebellion, the message is loud and clear — you might get a pat on the head from the ever-debating members of the U.N., but don’t expect much more than that. If you are Hugo Chavez, or Robert Mugabe, or the leadership of Iran, you realize that there isn’t much stomach for confrontation, and perhaps you decide to conduct your affairs even more recklessly. And if you are Israel, or some other pro-Western government in a volatile region, you begin to calculate your chances of survival if American words aren’t backed up with deeds and you adjust your policies accordingly.
I’m not saying that America should intervene militarily in every foreign policy crisis or act as the world’s policeman. I am saying, however, America should zealously guard whatever is left of its credibility and not issue pronouncements unless it is willing to back them up.
A dictatorial government has been overthrown in Tunisia. Protests continue to rage in Egypt, causing long-time leader Hosni Mubarak to reshape his government and to declare that he will not seek “re-election.” Whether he can remain in power until September, as he plans, is anyone’s guess. Significant protests also have occurred in Jordan and Yemen.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks reported by the BBC, has said that the entire Mideast region is in the grip of powerful forces and that the status quo is not sustainable. The inevitable question is whether other countries in the region — such as Lebanon, Syria, Libya, and even Saudi Arabia — also will be the site of mass protests and regime change.
Revolutions — even revolutions that, like the protests in Egypt, seem to be motivated by desire for freedom and democracy — can be unpredictable in their results. Were the bloody Jacobin governments and eventually the reign of Napoleon really preferable to the corrupt French monarchy? History teaches that there can be no assurance that, long-term, the governments that may replace the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes will be preferable to those that went before.
These circumstances present foreign policy challenges that are far more difficult than any yet confronted by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. They will be asked to make quick decisions in the face of fast-moving events, decisions that may have profound consequences. All Americans, whether Republican, Democrat, or independent, should hope that their decisions help to produce a Middle East that is more stable and more democratic, rather than the opposite — because the opposite could be catastrophic.
Egypt’s economy is mired in high unemployment with low wages, and the masses have followed the lead of Tunisia and taken to the streets against an unpopular leader. Mubarak, who has been President for 30 years and apparently has become increasingly tyrannical over that period, is trying to avoid being deposed. In these all-too-familiar scenarios, the crucial issue for the regime usually is whether the army can beat back the masses so that calm can be restored, or whether the army decides to side with the public, leaving the strongman President For Life unprotected, unsupported, and faced with a choice between arrest and trial or fleeing into exile. That decision point seems to be drawing near in Egypt.
I am sure that the realpolitick types in American government would prefer Mubarak to the unknown that might occur if he were deposed. It is possible, of course, that elections could produce a fundamentalist Islamic regime that is hostile to Israel and the Mideast peace process. Yet too much American support for Mubarak could quash American influence with a successor government if he ultimately is deposed. Iran may be a model here. America’s steadfast support for the Shah of Iran until the bitter end left America with no real influence when the Ayatollah Khomeini took over, and American and Iran have been estranged ever since — to the detriment of geopolitics in the Middle East.
Of course, geopolitical considerations and American foreign policy considerations don’t mean much to those Egyptians who are in the streets, protesting in hopes of achieving democratic changes and a better life. Why shouldn’t they have a real say in how they are governed?