The NSA and the Foreign Policy Establishment

For many, although not all and perhaps not even most, Americans the degree of NSA surveillance in recent years is very disconcerting. Millions of Americans on the political left and right as well as those without strong ideological positions are not comfortable with a government that is tracking, although not listening to, all our phone calls. The view that what numbers we call and at what time and from where we place those calls is simply not the business of the federal government is reasonably intuitive and widespread. People who feel this way are usually aware of the seriousness of the threat of terrorism, but are not convinced this kind of broad surveillance is necessary to combat it.

Supporters of this surveillance are, admittedly, in the tough position of proving a negative. It is difficult to connect the dots clearly to link this widespread surveillance to an attack that might have happened. Statements by government officials to the effect that this program has stopped terrorist attacks, particularly given the tenuous relationship between the federal government and truth telling, cannot simply be accepted at face value.

The NSA surveillance should not come as a surprise to most people. Anybody who has liked a favorite sports team on Facebook and seen an ad on their page a few minutes later selling them tickets or memorabilia associated with that team, or who has searched for a product online and noticed that ads for similar products have begun appear when they are surfing the Internet, is familiar with the technology that makes surveillance and tracking of electronic footprints so easy. It would have been more of a surprise if the government were not doing this. That, however, does not make it right or mean that Americans should be comfortable with this.

Interestingly, the public opinion data suggests that the NSA surveillance program is supported by a majority of the American people, although one that falls significantly short of a consensus. It is likely that one of the reasons for this is that opinion leaders have begun to close ranks in support of this program. The speed with which the foreign policy establishment, ranging from former vice-president Dick Cheney to noted New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, have evinced support for the program and criticism, in some cases spilling over to an amateurish contempt, for Edward Snowden, the man who made this information public, is one of the most interesting sub-plots to emerge from the news about NSA surveillance.

This is a reminder that the most significant cleavages around foreign policy in the U.S. are not so much left and right but between elites and ordinary Americans. The foreign policy elite of both parties has determined that the NSA surveillance is okay. The explanation for this is somewhat obvious. For Democrats, there is little to gain from attacking a Democratic president who is still relatively popular. Republicans, for the most part, recognize that the last Republican administration did not exactly set a high standard of respecting privacy and civil liberties.

In addition to the partisan explanations, establishment support for the program exists because the NSA surveillance is a logical outgrowth of a paradigm that the foreign policy establishment has carefully built, at the very least, since September 11, 2001. To question the surveillance program is, implicitly, to question either the gravity of the threat of terrorism or the big picture strategies employed by the government in its efforts to combat this threat.

It is not just surveillance where the rift between the foreign policy establishment and the rest of the country is greater than that between left and right. This is true of much of foreign policy in general. The foreign policy establishment is deeply interventionist, committed to the notion of the U.S. as playing a unique and essential role in preserving global peace and more or less unconcerned with how much any of this costs.

This rift may be more pronounced now, but it has been part of American political life for decades. The difference is that while in the past one of the defining characteristics of the foreign policy establishment is that they had access to more information than everybody else, that is no longer true. As more people outside of the foreign policy establishment get access to information through all the technological innovations of recent decades, it will be easier to challenge and scrutinize the foreign policy establishment consensus. This will both weaken and broaden the foreign policy establishment.

For now, however, senators, former elected officials, influential columnists and Washington think tanks are busy assuring the American people that the real problem is not that the government was tracking the phone calls of millions of American citizens who are not even suspected of crime, but that a 29-year-old contractor decided the world should know about it. This will continue to not only undermine support for the president, but contribute to a climate of mistrust and suspicion that our country clearly does not need.