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How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

The scandal over the NSA spying on Angela Merkel heated up over the weekend, with many in the German press piling on to the story. The FT is on top of it:

According to leaked documents seen by the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, US intelligence intercepted the German chancellor’s phone from 2002, before she became chancellor, until shortly before a visit by President Barack Obama to Berlin this past June.

The documents also reveal that the surveillance was carried out by one of a network of secret US mobile phone listening stations that extends around the world, with manned posts – often in diplomatic missions – in European cities including Berlin, Frankfurt, Rome, Milan, Paris, Geneva and Madrid. […]

While Der Spiegel said it was not clear whether Mr Obama knew of the spying operation against Ms Merkel, the Sunday edition of Bild said the US president had been informed of the surveillance in 2010 by the NSA director Keith Alexander.

The White House has been relatively quiet on this, reiterating its initial claim “that the US was not, and would not in the future, monitor Ms Merkel’s personal phone.”

Whatever the specific outlines of the story turn out to be, and however much the President did or did not know, this is not the way to treat a German Chancellor. The klutzy handling of the successive revelations is making the White House look both untrustworthy and incompetent.

At a time when many Europeans doubt the quality of President Obama’s foreign policy leadership, his personal popularity remains the greatest single asset he brings to the American presence in Europe. The White House needs to get on top of this story, fast, or watch that popularity shrink—along with America’s standing with its most important European ally.

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  • wigwag

    “…this is not the way to treat a German Chancellor.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    Yes it is.

  • wigwag

    Professor Mead thinks the German Chancellor deserves more respect than either the Bush or Obama Administrations have shown her. My question is why?

    Now that the fact that the NSA has tapped Merkel’s cell phone has come to light, the Germans and the rest of the Europeans are furious or, at least, they are feigning fury. My question is, what exactly are they going to do about it?

    I suppose that they could express their outrage by insisting that they will never again accept American military protection and dramatically ramp up their own defense spending to make the point.

    Another way they could prove just how mad they are is by significantly increasing the price they pay for prescription medicines so that American consumers and taxpayers no longer pay nearly 100 percent of the development costs of new medicines.

    The Germans in particular could prove that their mad as hades and not going to take it any more by giving up their policy of austerity which has been made possible only because the United States took all the responsibility for reflating the world economy after the recent economic tsunami.

    Maybe Europe could prove how big and tough it is by assuming the responsibility of policing the world’s oil traffic; after all, they depend on oil from the Middle East far more than Americans do. Why wouldn’t the Europeans prove how mad they are by increasing the budget allocations for their navies by two or three thousand percent?

    The bottom line; its time for the Europeans to shut up and reflect on the extent to which they have become little more than leeches.

    My only beef with Bush and Obama for listening in on Merkel’s calls is, why did they bother. What could she possibly say that would matter?

    My guess is not much.

    • f1b0nacc1

      I share a great deal of your resentment at the EUnicks and their impotent whining, but the truth of the matter is that the they do have mischief that they can cause. Would be troublemakers like the Russians or the Chinese will no doubt use this contretmps as an opportunity to gain European support, economic and political, for their various projects around the globe, none of which are particularly good for the US. Yes, the EUnicks are pygmies, but the Liliputians were able to tie down Gulliver…

      • rheddles

        Then make it clear to the Germans, Poles, English and French that the next time they screw up their continent they are on their own, whether it be the Germans, Russians or Muslims who start it. Frankly, our ancestors left the place for a reason. Time to remember why.

        • f1b0nacc1

          I have little (if any) sympathy for the europeans, and firmly believe that the only worthwhile people there left in the person of our ancestors years ago, but the truth of the matter is that a large, rich (for the time being, anyway) continent full of people cannot simply be ignored because they are whiny fools. We bailed them out in WWI and WWII for the same reasons that we would bail them out (and that we tolerate their over-privileged caterwalling) today…if someone else dominates the place, they will eventually use what they gain there to come after us and our interests.
          Unless you believe that the US can prosper in splendid isolation, we are stuck putting up with these fools.

          • rheddles

            I suspect we have more alternatives that supporting the EUros, no matter how stupid they are and splendid isolation. There’s the great big Pacific Rim for one and Latin America for another, both of which are as important to us as Europe. Let the EUropeans grow up so that they can take care of themselves and we can attend to the growth markets.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I don’t entirely disagree with you, but I suspect that you will find the PacRim or Latin America to be even more unpleasant to deal with than the europeans, with whom we at least share some cultural commonalities.
            It isn’t a question of “the EU or splendid isolation”, but some understanding at least that we cannot simply take our ball and go home when the other players (no matter how whiny) behave poorly. There has got to be at least some middle ground…

          • rheddles

            I’m happy to keep trading with all of them. It’s not a matter of taking a ball and going home, but stationing Americans overseas and making promises to defend their territorial integrity that I find offensive. As long as they are our wards, they should show due deference. If they’re not wards, they should improve their internal security.

  • Ed

    The problem is not the spying, but the incompetence of the hiding of said spying. Spying on foreign governments is the raison d’etre of essentially the entire U.S. intelligence establishment. Along with that function is the necessity of keeping that spying secret. The embarrassment is not the spying itself, but the revelation thereof, and the piss-poor counterintelligence in this country.

    All of the outrage in Europe is being feigned, but the fact no one responsible for allowing these leaks to happen has been properly dealt with (pour l’encourager les autres, at the very least) here is truly outrageous.

  • lukelea

    I understand that Israel has complete access to unedited NSA data too. I have also heard it alleged that Israeli companies supplied some of the key hardware and/or software used by US intelligence agencies and top secret lines of communication withing the government generally. Have heard nothing about whether US and/or Israeli intelligence agencies have access to the communications of private, profit-making corporations, financial institutions, etc..

    I’m not sure whether this is troubling or not if access to all this information within Israel were strictly limited to Israeli intelligence and high government officials. But is this realistic, given human nature? Imagine the possibilities if any of this information found its way into private hands. It would be a new kind of inside information by which fortunes could be made.

    I’d like to at least see some Congressional hearings, if only to lay these rumors to rest, if they are just rumors.

  • jeburke

    I’m sorry. I still think NSA was just doing what it’s supposed to do. Snatching cell phone signals from the air using listening posts at embassies and consulates is really baby stuff, hopefully targeted at such folks as Russians and Chinese in the West and terrorists, as well as German officials. If Merkel was blabbing her commercial or political secrets on her cell phone, she should have got a better cell phone or cut it out.

    Not incidentally, the German Embassy located in Northwest Washington, D.C. bristles with antennae, as does the French Embassy around the corner, and they are probably not all for DirecTV.

    • Andrew Allison

      There’s a very clear line between looking for foreign threats to US National Security and bugging the phones of heads of state of our allies.

      • jeburke

        There is no such clear line at all. We have “no spying” agreements with the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, period. No one else. There is every reason to gather intelligence on the thinking, internal discussions, planning, etc. of major friendly states whose actions can and do have significant effects on US interests around the world and who are often not on the same page with us, notwithstanding an alliance.

        If the German BND could tap into Obama’s Blackberry by monitoring his signal from inside the German Embassy in Washington, it would. Perhaps it has, who knows.

  • Andrew Allison

    “The White House needs to get on top of this story, fast, or watch that
    popularity shrink—along with America’s standing with its most important
    European ally.” It’s way too late. The Administration is apparently unaware of the First Rule of Holes (When you find yourself in one, drop the shovel!). Do they really think that anybody will believe that NSA wouldn’t advise the President that they were bugging the phones of foreign heads of state? The alternative, that the President is not in command, is even worse.

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