Commentary: Spying damages our reputation
November 01, 2013 10:10 AM
by NICHOLAS KRISTOF

Perhaps there’s more we could do to antagonize American allies.

The National Security Agency could tweet Chancellor Angela Merkel’s juicy phone conversations, or post video clips on YouTube of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan singing in the shower.

The Pentagon could fly drones over Paris, dropping Big Macs on fine restaurants, just to show that we can.

Government officials fume at Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning for harm they did to American security. Fair enough. But the latest uproar over our NSA spying is a reminder of how senior American officials have themselves jeopardized our strategic interests — by overreaching and doing things just because they could.

Our national security policy has gone off the rails since 9/11. For a dozen years, security has been an obsession, rarely constrained by a weighing of trade-offs, and to what result? We have sought every tactical advantage, and this sometimes leads — as in eavesdropping of foreign allies — to strategic losses.

We have doubled spending on intelligence, after inflation, to more than $70 billion annually.

More people have “top secret” clearances than live in the District of Columbia — and it was inevitable that there would be some rogues among them. When everything is classified, the system loses credibility, transparency and accountability.

The war on terror led us to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, achieving few obvious gains but costing thousands of American lives. For every jihadi we killed, we appear to have created several new ones.

As a Chinese saying goes, we lifted up a rock and dropped it on our own feet.

When he took office, President Barack Obama seemed likely to reorient security policy. He did, indeed, bring troops back from Iraq and, after a misconceived “surge” in Afghanistan, is winding down our presence there.

But, overall, his security policy is surprisingly similar to President George W. Bush’s: Guantanamo remains an affront to our values and the world’s, NSA spying programs continue in force, drone strikes have been stepped up, and the White House has tried to curb serious public conversation about drones, spying and cyberwarfare. The Obama administration has prosecuted more whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations put together.

The latest scandal involving our spying on European leaders is symptomatic of this larger myopia about our strategic interests.

It’s true that some of the outrage in Europe is affected. As Bernard Kouchner, the former foreign minister of France, bluntly noted in a radio interview: “Let’s be honest. We eavesdrop, too. Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.”

Still, our eavesdropping seems to have broken German law, as well as the first rule of spying: Don’t get caught.

If Obama really didn’t know that 35 world leaders were being listened to, something was wrong with intelligence oversight. A former CIA senior official says that before 9/11, that kind of monitoring of world leaders was always cleared by the White House.

“Anything with senior government officials or heads of state was checked quite carefully, at least with the national security adviser, if not the president,” the official told me.

Yet, since 9/11, our security policy has been on autopilot: If we can spy on Merkel, let’s do it! If we can use a drone to kill a suspected terrorist, go for it! If we can keep people indefinitely in Guantanamo, why not?

Our hubris has undercut America’s greatest foreign policy advantage: our soft power. In Pakistan, for example, our drone strikes have removed some dangerous militants. But drone strikes deeply antagonized the Pakistani people, tarnishing our image and reducing our leverage in a pivotal country. Our drones damaged our own influence in Pakistan more than the Taliban’s.

As David Rohde of Reuters puts it: “The United States obsession with al-Qaida is doing more damage to the nation than the terrorist group itself.”

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the majority of Europeans today have no memory of the Cold War and that, as a result, we have less leeway today to antagonize our allies. “This is a different geopolitical era,” he said. “We can’t assume that people are for us.”

Yes, there is still a place for drones, for spying on allies, for the NSA. But they need to be subjected to scrutiny, context and brakes, as they were before 9/11.

Commercial aviation would be safer if we were all required to fly stark naked. But we accept trade-offs — such as clothing — and thus some small risk. In the same way, it’s time to pause for a breath in the security realm and start examining the trade-offs, rather than just doing things because we can.

Contact Kristof at Face book.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

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