February 18, 2013

Obama's Legacy

This may be a tad premature, but I thought I would beat the rush four years from now and offer my own quick assessment of the Obama Legacy. While President Obama might wish that health care will be the main thing for which he will be remembered, I suspect that two other aspects of his years in office will define his legacy.

First, the drones and the idea that we can kill "enemies," including U.S. citizens, without any sort of trial, for acts they are planning to commit but haven't gotten around to actually doing. Who makes those decisions? The intelligence community and, in some cases, the president himself. A Justice Department white paper maintains that we can take out terrorists in other countries if that country agrees or is "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual being targeted." Well, that ought to cover just about anything.

As a precedent, it is hard to imagine one more at odds with traditional notions of American fair play and justice. Some suggest that it is precisely those principles that led us into this moral quagmire. Rosa Brooks, writing in the journal Foreign Policy, argues that the rationale for drones can be tracked back to the intervention in Kosovo to halt Serbia's "ethnic cleansing," a crisis that justified the violation of national sovereignty in pursuit of a higher good. Since then, it has been one big slippery slope, accelerated by the advent of drone technology, which enables fairly precise lethal action without having to put any boots on the ground.

The second big legacy of the Obama administration will be cyber-warfare, as exemplified by Stuxnet, a first-strike computer virus that targeted industrial software controlling the centrifuges Iran needed to manufacture enriched uranium that could be used in a nuclear weapon. It's pretty much an open secret that Stuxnet was developed by the United States and Israel, an operation code-named "Olympic Games" that was begun under President George W. Bush, by the way.

The decision to deploy such a weapon was holy debated inside the Obama administration. The president overrode those concerns, including his own, that once out there, such a weapon might fall into the wrong hands. And thanks to a bug in the software, that's exactly what happened.

The United States was the first nation to use a nuclear weapon. The United States will now go down in history as the first nation to launch a cyber-attack, this time to stop development of a nuclear weapon. As with the drones, it's the precedent being set by these actions that matters. These things have a way of coming back to bite you in the ass. This is especially true of cyber-attacks. Everything runs through a computer these days. Anyone from an angst-ridden teenager in Amsterdam to a rebel with a cause to a government claiming the right to self-defense can launch a cyber-attack against anyone ... anywhere ... anytime.

There is such a thing as the law of nations, legal precedents designed in large measure to define the limits of sovereignty. Like any other legal system, once a precedent is set, it never goes away. More to the point--especially given that the United States sees itself through the lens of American exceptionalism, the idea that this country has a special mission to spread liberty and democracy--once the moral high ground is surrendered, it can never be regained.

Most presidents want a legacy that highlights their positive achievements. But for President Obama, history will also have to record  his legacy as a leader who unleashed the dogs of techno-war. The worst thing about techno-wars is that they are too easy to fight, because no longer will we have to sacrifice our own sons and daughters. Just our ideals.

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