Post Snowden: The Government Doubles Down on Hard Power

I was asked to participate in a CATO debate about where we are a year post Snowden. My contribution to that debate — in which I argue any big drama going forward will come from the newly adversarial relationship between Google and the NSA —  is here.

As part of that, I argued that the government made a choice after Snowden: to double down on hard power over soft power.

The conflict between Google and its home country embodies another trend that has accelerated since the start of the Snowden leaks. As the President of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, Edward Black, testified before the Senate last year, the disclosure of NSA overreach did not just damage some of America’s most successful companies, it also undermined the key role the Internet plays in America’s soft power projection around the world: as the leader in Internet governance, and as the forum for open speech and exchange once associated so positively with the United States.

The U.S. response to Snowden’s leaks has, to a significant degree, been to double down on hard power, on the imperative to “collect it all” and the insistence that the best cyberdefense is an aggressive cyberoffense. While President Obama paid lip service to stopping short of spying “because we can,” the Executive Branch has refused to do anything – especially legislatively – that would impose real controls on the surveillance system that undergirds raw power.

And that will likely bring additional costs, not just to America’s economic position in the world, but in the need to invest in programs to maintain that raw power advantage. Particularly given the paltry results the NSA has to show for its domestic phone dragnet – the single Somali taxi driver donating to al-Shabaab that Sanchez described. It’s not clear that the additional costs from doubling down on hard power bring the United States any greater security.

Because I was writing this essay, that’s largely where my mind has been as we debate getting re-involved in Iraq.

In the 3 or 4 wars we’ve waged in the Middle East/South Asia since 9/11 (counting Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria), we’ve only managed to further destabilize the region. That was largely driven by a belligerence that goes well beyond our imperative to collect it all.

But I do think both the Snowden anniversary and the Iraq clusterfuck should focus far more energy on how we try to serve American interests through persuasion rather than bombs and dragnets.

14 replies
  1. Don Bacon says:

    The US strategic goal is to create instability because it’s profitable and contributes to domestic repression. They go hand-in-hand, fearfulness from foreign threats and increased control at home. Not only does it unify the country under a Great Leader who is sorry for the human sacrifice but it’s necessary, but it also results in terrific war profits for the corporations.

    • bloopie2 says:

      I think that instead the main component is the “warmonger” attitude among US leaders, the sense that military force can win the day. That feeling was tempered somewhat after the Vietnam debacle, but the soldiers who were young enough to actually fight in that war are only recently coming of the age where they take power in the US. (Dubya was an exception, but then again, he didn’t actually fight over there.) There are so many layers to every Middle Eastern conflict that it’s impossible for an outside force like the US to go in and “win” anything. The military-industrial complex you allude to is an offshoot of the warmongering hubris. Ike saw it coming; it’s taken us two generations since then, to get a voting group that will heed his warning. Say what you will on Obama’s words/actions on other issues, I think he really does recognize the inanity of any more Middle Eastern war.

      • Don Bacon says:

        “I think that instead the main component … the sense that military force can win the day.”
        The US hasn’t “won” a war in, like, forever. It’s not the destination, it’s the trip — there’s so much money in it.

        “War is a racket. . .the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

        — MajGen Smedley D. Butler, USMC, double recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, 1935
        My favorite story on getting rich off death and destruction is:
        Uncle Bucky Makes a Killing

        • Michael Murry says:

          To the infamous Orwellian Three Slogans of the Party:

          Ignorance is Strength
          Freedom is Slavery
          War is Peace

          the US military has now added a fourth:

          Defeat is Victory

          You can always tell when the U.S. military has lost another war the minute they start calling it “long.” So get your “Long War” cigarettes, “Long War” chocolate, and “Long War” gin before the monthy ration gets even smaller while the official output statistics increase.

    • REDPILLED says:

      Excellent points! More and more of us are coming to recognize this neocon strategy in operation since it was published by PNAC in 1999. Bush, Obomber, Hillary and Jeb are all neocons, as are most members of Congress. Imperialism for corporate profit is their true ideology, regardless of their lying rhetoric. Hannah Arendt warned us long ago: “Empire abroad entails tyranny at home”.

  2. ess emm says:

    But I do think both the Snowden anniversary and the Iraq clusterfuck should focus far more energy on how we try to serve American interests through persuasion rather than bombs and dragnets.

    But if the US relies on persuasion/negotiation then the US wouldn’t be the global hegemon and its elites would be unable to profit from the hegemon’s unlevel playing field. I’m very pessimistic because I think America’s pig-eyed, self-serving elites want to continue the current power order at any cost.

  3. Scott Lazarowitz says:

    Of course government bureaucrats will double down on their power trips. The natural instinct of the bureaucrat is to be a predator, an intruder. The State is a monopolist in territorial security as well as judicial decision-making whose “services” the rest of the population are compelled to use. And compulsory monopolists are not accountable and not required to act under the rule of law like everyone else because they ARE the law. Of course they will get off on more and more power. And the rest of us end up being less secure, so that means that not only are the bureaucrats increasing their powers, they aren’t even doing their jobs of serving the people with actual “security”!

  4. ArizonaBumblebee says:

    The Obama Administration has doubled down because it is running scared. Our military interventions and drone attacks in Africa and the Middle East have only served to anger the local populations and to enrage Islamist groups, who increasingly view America’s interventions as an attack on Islam itself. Meanwhile, these actions have converted what was once a ragtag group of a few hundred religious fanatics operating mostly out of caves in Afghanistan into several semi-professional military outfits occupying large swaths of land in several countries throughout Africa and the Middle East.

    The Snowden revelations have severely damaged America’s reputation around the world. And because of that, several countries are taking actions to neutralize the NSA’s activities in their countries. These actions will materially damage America’s technology companies unless the American government is willing to demonstrate conclusively that the concerns these countries have are misplaced. The recent action to indict several Chinese PLA soldiers only served to reinforce those concerns.

    I think it is obscene that the very neocon players who orchestrated the previous two quagmires in Iraq are also the people who are recommending we intervene directly in Iraq and Syria. But what is even more amazing to me is the way the MSM takes seriously their criticisms and doesn’t seek out alternate views. Foolishly, I had hoped these critics would have the decency to keep their mouths shut and be glad they weren’t on trial at the Hague for complicity in war crimes.

    All of us should remain alert to what is happening around us. America is only an incident away from a game-changing event that could impact all of our lives. It could be Russia invading Ukraine. It could be ISIS attacking the Green Zone in Baghdad, or a terrorist attack on the Ras Tenura oil terminal in Saudi Arabia. If such an event were to occur, I fear for the future of our constitutional republic.

  5. bloopie2 says:

    Google vs. the USA will be an interesting match-up. USA of course has a big head start, but Google, I sense, is a LOT more creative. I assume, for example, that Google has analyzed the entire world electronic communication infrastructure, has pegged every spying possibility that NSA might be exploiting, and is working to find ways for people to avoid them. Just because the NSA can hire all the “best” mathematicians to put their plans into practice, doesn’t mean that the plans themselves are all that imaginative. Perhaps I should support Google, instead of avoiding them because they’re so predatory? Maybe we need the Google predator to fight off the USA predator.

  6. What Constitution? says:

    Excellent commentary, EW. Surprised you were able to resist any comment on Mr. Wittes’ insistence upon insisting that he is personally quite comfortable in the warm pot of water he’s sitting in with the rest of us. For those who would similarly approach the executive and congressional puffery “solutions” to Snowden’s disclosures — in the form of the draft USA Freedumber Act as some sort of guide for the NSA “to serve man” — don’t forget that words can have funny meanings.

  7. orionATL says:

    i think when all the history has been written, those reading it will find that the reason this president allowed and abetted the nsa, doj, fbi, cia, etc., in enacting legislation which profoundly changes the balance of power between the american state and its citizens

    is simply that obama viewed his constituency not as the american citizenry, but as the officials in charge of the various policing-power beauracracies – the nsa, fbi, cia, doj, dhs, dea, etc. these were the “stakeholders” invited to the table (rather like the affordable care act) with the whitehouse.

    the bill of rights’ disaster unfolding this summer may be a conscious decision about hard power;

    but i think rather it is simply a matter of inertia – this is the way things have been done for 75 years and this conventional president is not about to break new trail. this presidential demurral is greatly amplified by the fact that it is being exploited by highly experienced and competitive, tenacious, self-righteous national security bureaucrats with like-minded congressional allies.

  8. Ken Muldrew says:

    As Mary was wont to remind us, there is no soft power without justice. That is the lever through which power can be exerted upon those who rely on might, and it is the desired result of using such power. When the U.S. abandoned all pretense of standing for justice in the international arena, it discarded its ability to exert soft power on belligerent nations. With the Snowden revelations (the abandonment of justice for their own citizenry), the U.S. also lost its ability to exert soft power on nations that trounce the freedoms and human rights of individuals. The U.S. is extraordinarily powerful, but it is the power to kill, maim, and destroy those entities that interfere with its will.

  9. Nell says:

    Google isn’t your friend or mine. ‘Soft power’ is still imperialism, and corporate collect-it-all-ism isn’t any nicer than the government variety (to the extent they’re distinguishable — less and less over time).

    Are billionaires going to support dismantling a system that has given them such staggering wealth and power? No, they’re busy figuring out how they can assist and profit from the increasing social control that their part of the panopticon makes possible.

Comments are closed.