The Narrative

A big problem with the NSA scandal is that those opposing the surveillance expansion are directly attacking the very people who have the power to end it – in particular, the US president. By attacking Obama they leave him no choice but to fight back since it is simply not in his own interest to agree with them and blame himself for all said faults. When pushed, people will push back, especially in positions of power. Obama will entrench himself further, will deny accusations, will try to lessen the scope of said accusations and will try to justify his actions. He will do all of that because it is his ambition to be a good president, or at least to appear to be a good president. That is his narrative.

The alternative? Thank the government and Obama on their hard work securing the country against new threats, but ask for a review of the scope of surveillance, and ask for new laws to limit the scope. Instead of confronting the government as an enemy, confront them as a friend, while stating firmly what else you want to see done. This is a way to build on Obama’s narrative of a good president. It presents his actions in good light, while at the same time giving him the opportunity to further improve his record. Politicians are afraid of contradicting themselves, so they will never want to admit to being wrong, to making mistakes. Instead of piling up blame and focusing on the past, be gracious and focus on the future. Paint a future that they would want to move towards to win even more support and goodwill.

Sun Tzu has this concept called the “golden bridge.” When you surround the enemy during an attack, you must always leave them room to escape – you must build them a golden bridge to retreat over. The reason for this is that if soldiers find themselves with no way to run, they will fight to the death. With nothing to lose, men will fight many times their original strength. A room for escape, however, always gives them the opportunity to flee, so instead of fighting to the death when beaten they will take your bridge to save their lives.

When Obama talks about having a “national conversation” about the NSA issue, he is creating a golden bridge for himself, he is creating his own narrative that aims to align his actions with the wishes of the public. While he cannot outright say that he and the government have overstepped their boundaries – which is against his own interests – he can present a potential route towards reconciliation. If you take the narrative, you can push forward the changes you want with less resistance. If you keep attacking them, you will have to overcome the full force of an entrenched opposition trying to preserve their reputation.1

  1. Note that this is not a compromise, it’s a different strategy. The issue of privacy rights is very important and should not be compromised on, but there are different ways you can go about securing those rights. Where reconciliation is impossible a direct confrontation is unavoidable, but I don’t think that’s the case here.
August 2013