Is President Obama changing the face of foreign policy?
(CBS News) Coming into office in 2009, many in Washington had low expectations of what President Obama would bring to the foreign policy front. Without much experience in foreign affairs, the President campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and closing the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In short, the President came to Washington promising to end some of the practices of the Bush administration. To the surprise of many, President Barack Obama seems to have expanded some of those very tactics and has taken some practices of war and security to new levels, according to two new books.
"The United States has never before acknowledged the use of cyber weapons," said David Sanger, author of "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power" (Random House). "President Obama in the middle of it. The president's in the situation room and had to make decisions about when to continue, when to accelerate and whether to kill this program," he told Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation." "And now the concern is of course... [it's] clear that we are using these, that the president was worried it could create a pretext for China, Russia, others to do the same to us, perhaps under less strict rules."
Sanger, a top reporter for The New York Times, told Schieffer that the United States government, working with Israel, has undertaken a four-year-old covert cyber attack on Iran's nuclear weapons program called "Olympic Games."
"The way it worked, Bob, was that the U.S. and Israel jointly designed a system to get inside the computer controllers that run the Natanz Enrichment Plant. This is where Iran makes its nuclear fuel. For a year they sent in a beacon that just mapped out, put up a blueprint of what this plant looks like, and then they sent in a series of these worms that were designed to speed up or slow down the centrifuges in ways where the Iranians didn't realize that they were even under attack. They believed that their equipment was simply failing.
"This went on many times until they made a mistake, and the worm got out of Natanz through the laptop of an unwitting Iranian engineer who went home, plugged it into the Internet and suddenly one variant of this worm was out for the world to see, and that was the thread I started to pull on to be able to tell the story" in his book, he said.
Beyond the overt use of cyber attacks, Daniel Klaidman of Newsweek says that Obama has been intimately involved with the life-and-death decisions of the vastly-accelerated drone strikes against terror suspects in Pakistan and Yemen.
"It's extraordinary the extent to which this president has been very deeply and personally involved in these killing decisions - kinetic activity as they call it," said Klaidman, the author of "Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency" (Houghton Mifflin). "This is a president who came in to office wanting to wind down the wars of 9/11 to sort of a smaller footprint... he sort of emerges as a sort of shadow warrior using drones, using special operations forces and then in the Iranian context, as David reports, using cyber warfare and espionage, and it's a way to try to continue to deal with these threats but without full-scale war," he said.
The culmination of the drone and cyber wars is a new phase in American foreign policy.
"There is an Obama doctrine," said Sanger, "which is, the country's tired of these big wars of occupation, of sending 100,000 troops into a country, staying around for four or five years at a cost of a trillion dollars or more, and yet we still have these threats. So the way he has operated has been to try to choose a high tech area where the Unites States has advantage."
But, Sanger says, those high-tech areas of warfare are not necessarily the easiest to use on the battlefield. "He's also recognized that these involve significant big, legal and moral decisions. There's some legal basis that they've laid out now for the drone wars. There's very little legal basis that they've described for the cyber wars, and so he's had to operate both as commander and as something of law professor to sort of figure out if there is a way the United States can conduct these wars legally - and then also deal with what the blowback is," he said.
Klaidman says the President's involvement in the selection of targets for the use of drones for targeted attacks gives him some reassurance.
"Obama decided that he wanted to be personally involved in this. I think there's to some extent because he wanted to assume the moral responsibility, but I think it was largely because he was worried that he was going to end up getting sucked into wars in places like Yemen and Somalia." Klaidman also says that while the use of drone attacks has increased dramatically from the Bush administration, President Obama has in fact honed down the target list. "He was saying, I want to go after fewer of these people. We don't know that they are, as he would put it, AQ focused, and he wanted to stay focused on our core interests which was to say going after al Qaeda," Klaidman said.
The dichotomy that defines the Obama doctrine is that this President is quick to use the new technologies of warfare to protect the homeland, but has been reluctant to lead on other foreign policy crises that don't directly impact the nation's security.
"When there's a more general threat, then he insisted on putting other countries out in the lead, making sure that they're putting skin in the game. So in Libya, he did that. In Syria, you've seen very little activity because the U.S. won't go into the lead. There isn't a cyber option, there really isn't a drone option, and we're somewhat frozen.
"This is the downside to the Obama doctrine because there are limits to what you can do with drones and cyber. It's great for going out after a specific facility or a terrorist. It's not great for changing the nature of a society," he said.
With the high-profile raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the now public-acknowledgement of the use of drones and cyber warfare, the Obama administration has had some foreign policy successes. Yet critics are quick to charge that the White House has been eager to leak sensitive information that makes the President look good in an election year, but which could hurt U.S. security interests in the long run.
Both authors say their reporting isn't the result of chest-thumping leaks from the administration.
"I got the sense that these officials who I talked to are dealing with, on a daily basis, these huge moral dilemmas and very complicated legal and policy problems. They wanted to talk about it because some of these issues weighed on their consciences. They wanted to talk about it because they wanted to make sure that people understood that they don't make these decisions lightly. And I think it had more to do with that than to try to spin reporters and to boost up the president," said Klaidman.
Added Sanger: "All that you read about this being deliberate leaks out of the White House wasn't my experience."
One of the more alarming security threats discovered by Sanger is a scare that changed how the White House sees the ongoing war against terrorism.
"There's a chapter called 'Bomb Scare,'" he told Schieffer. "They had about four days in 2009 when they thought the Pakistani Taliban - based on intercepts they'd gotten listening to leaders of this Taliban group - had a small nuclear device. And they actually sent a nuclear search team to the Gulf."
"The scare turned out to be a false alarm, but Sanger said the experience reinforced an idea among U.S. policymakers: That it's Pakistan, not Afghanistan that is really the biggest single threat to the United States in that region."
- Robert Hendin
Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.Follow on Twitter »
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