Cyberwarfare and Public Accountability

One of the reasons that American presidents go to war – not a good reason, mind you – is known as the “Rally Around the Flag” effect.  When America gets involved in an armed conflict, whether as defender or aggressor, the president becomes more popular and more highly-approved, and often the conflict itself is accompanied by a burst of legislation unrelated to the war.  There’s a lot of debate over precisely how strong the effect is and what drives it, but the existence of the effect itself is one of the best-known findings of political science.

This could be relevant for the decision to embrace cyberwarfare.  Today the NYT reveals that the Obama adminstration was deeply divided over the question of whether to use cyberweapons to attack the Syrian government.  The NYT reveals the deep discussion over the strategic benefits and risks – but one that does not appear there is the potential effect on American public opinion.  Cyberwarfare is still visible to affected foreign players (and possibly friendly/neutral ones too) and America is strategically accountable for its actions in this sphere, but it can be plausibly denied in a way that bombers and paratroopers can’t.  If Obama had decided to go forward with attacks on Syria, he would have had to deal with the fallout from Syria and Russia, but it likely would have remained secret until the next Edward Snowden leaked it.

If cyberwarfare is normalized, more acts of national aggression will take place out of the public eye.  As a positive question – a question of facts – public opinion is a significant constraint on executive action.  As a normative question, people differ a lot on whether this constraint is a good or bad thing.  Perhaps the people stop wise Presidents from taking the actions necessary to protect the country; perhaps the people’s reluctance to go to war stops foolhardy Presidents from making dangerous leaps into conflict.

The growth of cyberwarfare will be a neat and potentially worrying test of who is right.

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