Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit involved. It’s not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too.
When our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world, and the public doesn’t know about them until long after the fact, we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.
Remember when Obama supposedly extended a "hand of friendship" to Iran back in 2009? At the same time as he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran.
The country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, reacted coolly to Obama’s initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president. We are observing, watching, and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago." U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship.
With hindsight, of course, it’s clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I’m no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail — as it did.
We keep wondering, "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinous acts of war if anyone dared do them to us.
I’m not really surprised that the United States is using its power so freely; that is what great powers tend to do. I’m certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or to leak information about their supersecret policies only when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don’t think Americans should be so surprised or outraged when others are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators.
And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it’s only a matter of time before someone does it unto us in return.
Stephen M. Walt writes for Foreign Policy.