Pressed in recent days on his reaction to the revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been spying on the personal phone calls of the leaders of friendly governments, President Obama remarked that it is obvious that "what we could do is not necessarily what we should do." From a president who launched his first administration with a clarion call for more ethical governance, it's disconcerting that his NSA team missed this core distinction.
That distinction is the classic definition of an ethical dilemma. What you can do is not always what you should do - capability is not character. Nor is this a question of what is legal. It does not appear that the NSA did anything illegal. But not everything that is legal is ethical. Jim Crow laws were legal until the 1960s. Male-only job postings in newspapers were legal even longer. But they were not ethical.
As another example of something that is legal but not ethical, we now have reports that about five percent of Americans are losing their current health care policies because of the regulations written to implement the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Those regulations stipulate that whenever an insurance plan "grandfathered" under the ACA changes (such as increases in co-pays that go beyond a certain amount), the plan must be reissued in a way that meets the higher standards of the ACA. Thus, these Americans will get offered new policies with better coverage (whether they want better coverage or not) and most likely at higher rates. It turns out that the Obama Administration has known this, despite repeated statements by the President that, as he told the AMA in 2009: "If you like your health-care plan, you will be able to keep your health-care plan. Period." Maybe he should have added the words "with more coverage at higher rates" to that statement. Once again, a choice was made between what the Administration should have done and decided to do.
In the NSA case, it's at least possible that the president did not know of the spying on friends until very recently. In the ACA case, it's just not plausible that the president did not know his ironclad promise was rusty. In any case, as a leader, you can't delegate ethics or push ethics to the back burner in your desire to get legislation through. You cannot separate the ethical components of your decisions from the management or leadership components - without damaging both.
This is not an argument that spying on friendly governments is never permissible (though some might wish to make that argument). Nor is this an argument that minimum standards of health care should not be required in every health insurance policy (though some might wish to make that argument as well). It is an argument that when a leader acts in a way that calls into question his commitment to reasonable ethical standards, he puts his leadership at risk. The foundation of solid leadership is trust. When trust is eroded, leadership becomes shaky.
The president thus finds himself in damage-control mode. Time - and legislation - may be needed to gain back the trust of the Europeans. Time - and legislation - may also be needed to gain back the trust of Americans in the ACA. That time, and the work involved, will be paid for in a lack of progress (since progress also depends on trust) on a host of other issues, from international economic agreements to domestic immigration reform. When acting unethically, the price seems cheap until the bills start to come in.
These observations may seem rather naive. Haven't our leaders acted unethically before? Isn't some level of unethical behavior part of the job description? Could FDR have led us out of the depression and on to victory in World War II with squeaky-clean ethics? Could Kennedy have gotten us through the Cuban Missile Crisis if he had admitted to a side deal with the Russians to take our missiles out of Turkey? Are national and international affairs really the pristine ethical pastures we'd like to wish them into being?
The obvious and historical answer to these questions is "no." But that does not absolve leaders from either thinking carefully about ethics in every situation or setting a very high ethical bar for their appointees as well. When you act unethically towards your enemies, your friends may forgive you if the justification is sound. When you act unethically toward your friends - abroad or at home - who is left to forgive you?