The latest revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) may still be reverberating in Europe and South America, but the impact here in the United States has been muted. If anything, the Obama administration is taking more heat for its technological incompetence than its Orwellian overreach. The dominant story in the media is that the website set up to allow Americans to enrol for health care under the Affordable Care Act is in meltdown, putting the Department of Health and Human Services under severe strain and prompting the president to order a “tech surge” to solve the problem.
It is hard to find much sincere outrage at the activities of the NSA – except from the libertarian right, whose main concern is homeland surveillance, in any case.
The reason why the NSA has been allowed to grow so large is that it gives the US a significant advantage in a world in which the cybersphere is becoming ever more important. To restrict its activities to terrorist threats would be to cede the field to nations that are prepared to use this space for a range of equally nefarious activities, including industrial-scale theft of intellectual property. China is already reported to have stolen from the Pentagon the blueprints for the US’s much-prized F-35 fighter jets.
At the heart of this scandal is a deeper truth – which is that the US is operating within a narrower conception of its core national interests than at any time since the cold war. President Obama’s arrival in office was perceived in the rest of the west as an era of rapprochement and multilateralism. While he has eschewed the adventurism of his predecessor, it is hard to make the case that he has been any less unscrupulous. He is certainly not any more engaged. A recent story in the New York Times described how he sat through discussions of Syria policy in the summer, chewing gum and scrolling through his BlackBerry.
This is not to say that Obama’s idealism was a mirage. But it is clearer than ever that his priorities are domestic and that he has a bold agenda fundamentally to change the role of government in American society.
This is far from unpopular with the US electorate. The National Interest magazine, enjoying something of a renaissance, leads with a story about the return to the primacy of the nation state, “surpassing in significance all the recent preoccupations over civilisational clash, globalisation, history’s end and great-power polarity”. In the same spirit, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, has just completed a review of US policy in the Middle East addressing the question of “core American interests”. “‘We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is,” she has said, signalling a much more hard-headed approach in which American commitments are to be scaled down further. The support for democratic reform in Egypt, once seen as a cornerstone of US strategy, has been dropped, emphatically.
The end of American empire has presented difficult questions about what might come in its place – even for those who found the George W Bush “freedom agenda” so difficult to stomach. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has been grumbling about the failure of US leadership in Syria and about the vacillation of policy during the summer, which Riyadh believes is playing into the hands of Iran. The Saudi view is that the deal to dispense with Assad’s chemical weapons has taken the diplomatic pressure off him in the civil war. The Saudi decision to turn down a seat on the UN Security Council was intended as a sign of discontent directed at Washington.
Saudi Arabia is not the only ally to feel a little stung by the new realpolitik rationale in DC. After Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, raised the issue of the ongoing drone campaign at a meeting with Barack Obama late last month, documents were leaked to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post proving that senior Pakistani officials co-operate closely with the CIA on its drone programme. This may be the worst-kept secret of US-Pakistani relations. But it defies the logic put forward in a book doing the rounds in DC – One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare by Linda Robinson of the Rand Corporation – which suggests that “partnering” is the critical element of the new American approach to war.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, continues its internal feud over the strategy that led to the US government shutdown last month.
As much as anything, the battle between the GOP and the Tea Party was about tone and tactics. On the substantive policy issues involved – opposition to the Affordable Care Act and belief in the need to cut government spending – they were fundamentally on the same page. The same can’t be said of the looming issue of immigration reform, shortly to appear on the legislative agenda. It represents the single greatest threat to party unity.
Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party hero who came to national prominence during the shutdown, continues to court the spotlight. Over the course of his 21-hour filibuster speech against “Obamacare”, the maverick Princeton-educated Texan imitated Darth Vader and read from Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. He spent last weekend drumming up support in the bellwether state of Iowa. That’s a sure sign he is preparing a run for the Republican presidential nomination.