Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

NSA scandal highlights Obama's unfulfilled promise

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 3:10 PM EDT, Mon October 28, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Barack Obama promised to reverse George W. Bush's unilateral approach
  • He says by sticking with Bush's policies, Obama has disappointed allies, friends
  • Zelizer: Obama needs to make good on his promise to have U.S. work better with the world

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- The scandal over allegations about NSA surveillance overseas, including monitoring of the cell phone conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and millions of phone calls in France, is another huge blow to President Barack Obama.

The news has caused a big uproar in Western Europe, with Merkel demanding a response from Washington. It was "incredible that an allied country like the United States and at this point goes as far as spying on private communications that have no strategic justification," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, the Prime Minister of France. "Trust needs to be rebuilt," Merkel said.

While observers warn these complaints are hypocritical and have more to do with domestic politics in Western Europe than true feelings about the United States, this incident is nonetheless much more than a mere blip in the time line of Obama's presidency. The recent National Security Agency revelation is one more step in a series of revelations about practices that have undercut a central promise that candidate Obama made in 2008 -- to repair America's standing in the world.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

When Obama took office, America's position in the global community had greatly deteriorated. President George W. Bush's war in Iraq, and his unilateral approach to foreign policy, had generated tremendous distrust and anger overseas, including among our closest allies.

So, too, had Bush's apparent disregard for civil liberties and willingness to ignore international standards against the use of torture. The United States was seen as a country that acted solely in its own interest and that cared little for protecting strong and durable multilateral alliances. The United States, in the minds of its critics, also took reckless actions to defend its national security interests without thinking about the consequences.

Obama was determined to correct this. This had been a constant theme of his campaign against presidential opponent Sen. John McCain, more so than almost any domestic issue. In June 2008, speaking in Germany near the place where the Berlin Wall once stood, Obama said that, "In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in the world rather than a force to help make it right has become all too common."

He continued to expound on this theme in his first year as president. His stirring speech in Cairo in June 2009 offered inspirational words to many of his supporters, evidence that the president was serious about fixing the damage that had occurred under Bush.

But the promise is unfulfilled. Over the years, it has become clear that Obama left much more of Bush's foreign policy framework in place than many of his supporters had expected.

He continued with an extremely aggressive campaign against terrorist networks, employing drone strikes to destroy networks even when there have been significant civilian causalities, allowing for tough interrogation techniques and detention policies and depending on secret processes that created little accountability for what the government was doing, other than when leakers revealed classified information. Inconsistent policies toward authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes in countries such as Syria, as well as turbulence in Egypt following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, have greatly dampened the enthusiasm about Obama that had existed after 2008.

John Walker ran a father and son spy ring, passing classified material to the Soviet Union from 1967 to 1985. Walker was a Navy communication specialist with financial difficulties when he walked into the Soviet Embassy and sold a piece of cyphering equipment. Navy and Defense officials said that Walker enabled the Soviet Union to unscramble military communications and pinpoint the location of U.S. submarines at all times. As part of his plea deal, prosecutors promised leniency for Walker's son Michael Walker, a former Navy seaman. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years. John Walker ran a father and son spy ring, passing classified material to the Soviet Union from 1967 to 1985. Walker was a Navy communication specialist with financial difficulties when he walked into the Soviet Embassy and sold a piece of cyphering equipment. Navy and Defense officials said that Walker enabled the Soviet Union to unscramble military communications and pinpoint the location of U.S. submarines at all times. As part of his plea deal, prosecutors promised leniency for Walker's son Michael Walker, a former Navy seaman. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years.
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks

Nor did Obama do much to strengthen civil liberties. The public has begun to learn how extensive the surveillance has been on their phones, on their computers and every other type of communication that occurs. In short, the government has been watching.

To be sure, the success at generally preventing terrorist strikes within the U.S., barring Boston, is a central accomplishment of his presidency. But the difficulties he has faced achieving the balance he promised in relations with the rest of the world have come with a cost.

The NSA issue began with a debate about the proper domestic balance between civil liberties and counterterrorism and has now has extended into the realm of diplomacy.

Obama needs to make this right. The controversy hurts the ability of the United States to maintain strong relations with the allies whose support is essential to the war on terrorism, as well as in fighting against other global threats. He must provide answers and show that the government is responding to concerns about NSA practices.

One administration official has told the Wall Street Journal that President Obama had been unaware of NSA spying on 35 world leaders and that, as soon as he learned of the practice through an internal review (a response to the political outrage over the revelations of the spy program), he put parts of the program to an end. Even if this is the case -- and the president will need to make clear this is so given how cynical and skeptical the world has become about U.S. political rhetoric on these matters -- the information begs the question of how the NSA was allowed to remain so unaccountable even to the Commander-in-Chief and, more importantly, what steps President Obama will now take to make sure we conduct our counterterrorism programs within some kinds of parameters and guidelines.

If Obama does nothing further, the ongoing revelations will leave behind the same kinds of problems that he, as a candidate, understood to be so devastating in 2008.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT