The Nerve of 'Do as We Say, Not as We Do' Foreign Policy

Obama issued an order permitting sanctions against those who use new technologies to abuse human rights. But what about our own government's spying programs?

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President's Obama's new executive order enabling sanctions against foreign nationals who use the new technologies to facilitate human rights abuses might perhaps be summarized in one word -- chutzpah. Obama strongly supports pervasive government surveillance of U.S. citizens by his own security state. His administration has extended the time (from 6 months to 5 years) that counter-terrorism officials may (and no doubt will) retain information collected about Americans, regardless of their lack of connection to terrorism. Meanwhile, James Bamford has warned, the National Security Agency is building a massive data center to house all our communications and other "personal data trails."

True, unlike the Syrian government, a prime target of the new order, the administration is not engaged in mass murder of U.S citizens. As far as we know, the president has summarily ordered only one American killed (one too many), although he apparently retains unilateral authority to order the assassination of more. Maybe he doesn't consider the secret, warrant-less surveillance of everyone a human rights abuse if it isn't associated with mass detainment, torture, or murder. But the usual unnamed officials have told the Washington Post that future orders could target countries using technologies in "crackdowns on dissent." Crackdowns like Homeland's Security's surveillance of peaceful Occupy protesters, you might ask?

Given DHS's reported monitoring of the Occupy movement's "social media and IT usage," among other abuses, you might wonder what Obama is thinking when he righteously laments, "the same GPS, satellite communications, mobile phone, and Internet technology employed by democracy activists across the Middle East and North Africa is being used against them by the regimes in Syria and Iran." He should perhaps be saying to himself, "Don't do as we do. Do as we pretend to do."

But I doubt that Obama regards himself or his domestic surveillance state as insensitive, much less hostile, to human rights. Instead, I expect that, like a lot of people, he sees himself at least on balance as a virtuous person, not generally prone to hypocrisy. And like a lot presidents, I expect, he sees himself as a well-intentioned national steward of unusual percipience who can be trusted to exercise great power, for the common good. I expect that if he sometimes acknowledges to himself that he is doing the wrong thing (or what appears to be the wrong thing), he tells himself he is doing it for the right reasons, to achieve the right result -- even when the result is simply his own re-election. This is what I imagine to be the primary pitfall of presidential power: Seeing yourself as a good person, extraordinarily suited to leading the nation, you begin to see your own retention in power as the ultimate national good.

Maybe we need to elect people who trust themselves a little less (if only we had the choice). Enormous, unfathomable self-confidence, as well as a rhinoceros's hide, is required not just to run for president but also to believe that you'll excel at being president. Maybe the belief is partly self-fulfilling. We wouldn't want a president paralyzed by self-doubt. But we shouldn't want presidents unleashed by self-regard.