Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

Print Print Email Email Share Share Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close

loading...

You Might Have Missed: Surveillance Programs, Intervention in Syria, and Chinese Foreign Policy

by Micah Zenko
June 14, 2013

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper departs after a Senate briefing on national surveillance programs on June 13, 2013 (Ernst/Courtesy Reuters).

Alastair Iain Johnston, “How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?“ International Security 37, no. 4 (Spring 2013): 7–48.

Why, then, does it matter whether PRC diplomacy as a whole in 2010 can or cannot be characterized as “newly assertive”? It may matter because language can affect internal and public foreign policy debates. There is a long-standing and rich literature on the role of the media in agenda setting. What does agenda setting mean in concrete terms? It means focusing attention on particular narratives, excluding others, and narrowing discourse. In the agenda setting literature, it refers to the power of information entrepreneurs to tell people “what to think about” and “how to think about it.” It can make or take away spaces for alternative descriptive and causal arguments, and thus the space for debates about effective policy. The prevailing description of the problem narrows acceptable options.

The conventional description of Chinese diplomacy in 2010 seems to point to a new, but poorly understood, factor in international relations—namely, the speed with which new conventional wisdoms are created, at least within the public sphere, by the interaction of the internet-based traditional media and the blogosphere. One study has found, for instance, that on some U.S. public policy issues, the blogosphere and the traditional media interact in setting the agenda for coverage for each other. Moreover, on issues where this interaction occurs, much of the effect happens within four days. Other research suggests that political bloggers, for the most part, do not engage in original reporting and instead rely heavily on the mainstream media for the reproduction of alleged facts. The media, meanwhile, increasingly refers to blogs as source material. The result is, as one study put it, “a news source cycle, in which news content can be passed back and forth from media to media.” Additional research suggests that the thematic agendas for political campaigns and politicians themselves are increasingly influenced by blogosphere-media interaction.

Together, this research suggests that the prevailing framework for characterizing Chinese foreign policy in recent years may be relevant for the further development (and possible narrowing) of the policy discourse among media, think tank, and policy elites. As the agenda-setting literature suggests, this is not a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the speed with which these narratives are created and spread—a discursive tidal wave, if you will. This gives first movers with strong policy preferences advantages in producing and circulating memes and narratives in the electronic media or in high-profile blogs, or both. This, in turn, further reduces the time and incentives for participants in policy debates to conduct rigorous comparative analysis prior to participation. This is ironic, of course, given the proliferation of easier-to-access data and original information sources on the internet with which to conduct such rigorous comparative analysis.


James Kitfield, “A Hollow Military Again? National Journal, June 12, 2013.

The way President Obama put it to me is, ‘Give me fewer Iraqi Freedoms and more Desert Storms,’ said Adm.  James Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who coordinated the new defense strategic guidance.


Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on “Preparing for and Responding to the Enduring Threat,” June 12, 2013.

Sen. Mary Landrieu: “I hope that in the classified hearing that more of this can be brought to light. And I most certainly am going to be explaining this to my constituents in an appropriate, balanced way.”

(3PA: This quote summed up the congressional oversight process.  Only behind closed doors can controversial surveillance programs be brought to light, and which, constituents must rely upon the judgments of their elected members.)


Ruth Marcus, “James Clapper’s ‘least truthful’ answer,” Washington Post, June 13, 2013.

Ron Wyden doesn’t want to call the director of national intelligence a liar. The Oregon Democrat is too seasoned a politician for that — and James Clapper’s self-assessment, that he answered in the “least untruthful manner” when the senator asked whether the National Security Agency was collecting data about millions of Americans, speaks for itself. “No, sir . . . not wittingly,” Clapper said, when the answer was clearly — and is now demonstrably — yes.

“When I heard his response, I said, ‘I’ve got more follow-up work to do,’ ” Wyden said with studied mildness when we spoke Thursday.

Did Clapper lie? “I want to leave it at that,” Wyden demurred. Then he added, pointedly: “You cannot have strong oversight if intelligence officials don’t give you straight answers.”

And that is the paradox — the fallacy, even — of congressional oversight in the post-9/11 environment.


Brigid Schulte, “Many women in CIA still encounter glass ceiling, agency report says,” Washington Post, June 13, 2013.

In many ways, the dearth of women at the top levels of leadership at the CIA is not unlike the dearth of women at the top of any federal agency. Women make up 31 percent of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service and 33 percent of the entire federal government’s Senior Executive Service.

In public remarks to staff members, CIA Director John O. Brennan said he fully supports the recommendations and has named a senior female officer in the clandestine service to oversee their implementation. Changing the agency culture may take years, Brennan said, but doing so would “ensure all employees have the opportunity to reach their full professional potential” and enable the agency to better meet its mission.

“The countries that figure out how to crack this code,” she said, “will be tremendously advantaged in the future.”

Read the full report: “Director’s Advisory Group on Women in Leadership.”


Statement issued by the White House on behalf of Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, New York Times, June 13, 2013.

The President has been clear that the use of chemical weapons – or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups – is a red line for the United States, as there has long been an established norm within the international community against the use of chemical weapons.  Our intelligence community now has a high confidence assessment that chemical weapons have been used on a small scale by the Assad regime in Syria.  The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.

Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC. These efforts will increase going forward.

(3PA: Sending arms to support Syrian rebels will not change the outcome, let alone topple Assad. For more see: “The No-Plan Zone.”)


Tom Vanden Brook, “Marines, Army form quick-strike forces in Africa,” USA Today, June 14, 2013.

The Marines will base 500 troops at Moron Air Force Base in Spain, about 35 miles southeast of Seville, said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine Corps spokesman. They can be flown on short notice to African crises aboard six Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

The unit is known as the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force for Crisis Response. It will act as a first responder to U.S. embassies in the region on behalf of U.S. Africa Command, Flanagan said. It will be on standby to help evacuate Americans from hot spots and to provide disaster relief and humanitarian missions.

Post a Comment No Comments

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required

Pingbacks