To overgeneralize, in foreign policy I consider Susan Rice and Samantha Power to be "liberal interventionists." What is American power for, if it is not to do good in the world? (Rice at center, Power at left in Reuters photo.)
In the same broad strokes, I consider Barack Obama to be a "liberal non-interventionist," or more simply still a "realist." How long will American power last, if we are not very careful about how we use it? If Dwight Eisenhower were alive, this would be the category for him. (And, as the Eisenhower comparison probably reveals, this is the outlook I am most comfortable with.) Obama's main deviation from this pattern was his approval in 2009 of the temporary troop surge in Afghanistan. But he made this decision only a few months into his term, and the evidence suggests that he later regretted buying the arguments/promises/fantasies from Generals Petraeus and McChrystal that with more time, troops, and money the Afghanistan war could be won.
The liberal-realist president has now elevated two prominent exponents of a liberal-interventionist view different from his own. Does this suggest a change in overall Administration policy? I doubt it (despite an argument that it might, from Fred Kaplan). The available evidence also suggests that -- ever more so the deeper he goes into his service -- Obama knows and trusts his own judgment, even to a fault. So you can argue that it's a positive sign that a president is comfortable enough to surround himself with people he trusts personally and who will present a range of views. Eg Rice on the one side, Hagel on the other, Kerry and Biden somewhere else, etc. That's the positive side of today's news.
The negative side? The NSA PHONE SURVEILLANCE STORY!! For the moment, this quick post by Joshua Foust makes good sense to me. Central argument: the Congress keeps voting for these surveillance rights. This is the fruit of a decade's worth of open-ended "war on terror." More to come.
* Nomenclature update: Why does the headline say just " -- and NSA," rather than " -- and the NSA"? Because by intelligence-world convention, you can say "the National Security Agency" but you're supposed to say "NSA" without a "the." In the paragraph above a sentence starts "The NSA phone surveillance story" because that "the" refers to "story." The next time you hear a Congressional hearing involving NSA, which could be very soon, listen to hear officials say, "Meanwhile, NSA was beginning a program" etc.
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James Fallows is a staff writer for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.