We now know why the community of official secret-keepers was so spooked at Edward Snowden’s disclosure of massive American data-banking. It wasn’t because of what it told our enemies, who knew we were listening; it was because of what it told our friends.
European leaders are beside themselves with rage at disclosures over the weekend that American spy agencies targeted their offices at European Union headquarters in Brussels, as well as at the United Nations and elsewhere. A massive trade deal is threatened. We can only hope that international cooperation to fight actual terrorism - a genuine threat that has not receded since Snowden bolted for Hong Kong and then Moscow - continues apace. But we have to wonder whether police and security forces in Berlin, Paris and other capitals are eager to share new information with us. They may figure we already know.
Meanwhile, in countries where the governing elite forcibly imposes its will on the governed masses, the joy at exposing American overreach is palpable.
The best defense the Obama administration could muster boiled down to “everybody does it.” Or, as Secretary of State John Kerry less articulately put it, “I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs with national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that.”
To which the Machiavellian mandarins of Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and other unsavory regimes need only reply, “Exactly.”
While our NATO allies fumed and our geopolitical adversaries smirked, President Obama himself continued his family’s summer holiday tour of Africa. Obama was too busy on Sunday touring Robben Island, the former prison home of Nelson Mandela, to bother calling such trivial personalities as German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Francois Hollande to make the case for why America needs to gather intelligence on longtime allies and their citizens. Obama did finally get around to making the same point as Kerry, a bit more skillfully, at an African news conference late Monday, but the president’s YouTube diplomacy is not likely to mend fences with fellow summiteers who feel they have been electronically groped.
That’s too bad, because there is a pretty strong case to be made for why our intelligence services chose to read our allies’ diplomatic diaries. Strong enough, perhaps, to encourage some European leaders to tone down their public outcry and acknowledge that the price of living under an American security umbrella is that Americans sometimes do things that Europeans may not want to do themselves, or at least may not want to admit to doing publicly.
Consider, for example, Iran’s complaints last year that nuclear equipment manufactured by Germany’s Siemens contained explosives apparently designed to disable Iranian facilities. Siemens not only denied putting explosives in equipment bound for Iran; it denied having sold any equipment to the Iranians since 1979. Still, something must have upset the Iranians, who have no other incentive to reveal that they are shopping at Siemens.
So if German intelligence was not responsible for sabotaging a shipment of German equipment to Iran, who was? The obvious candidates are the United States and Israel, and the United States is the better bet. Good for us and our security efforts. Germany, a supposed partner in controlling Iran’s nuclear ambitions, ought to be more embarrassed by this episode than it seemed to be.
When Obama gets around to calling Merkel, he might remind her that the United States is out of range of Iranian missiles, at least for now. Europe is not.
And while American and British pilots spent a dozen years enforcing a no-fly zone against Saddam Hussein before the second Gulf War, France joined China in pressing for an easing of sanctions against the Iraqi regime, which had unleashed a litany of atrocities against its own people as well as its neighbors.
That costly American security umbrella, which so offends Europeans, allows our friends like Germany and France to pursue mercantilist policies, often with greater success because of restrictions we place on American competitors.
It is worth noting that an alliance is not a political union. Each party remains independent. An alliance is based on mutual interest and should, ideally, include a large element of mutual trust, but that trust is neither fixed nor limitless. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin were allies during World War II, but each nation pursued its own interests - and the degree of trust between Roosevelt and Churchill was certainly not shared in either’s relationship with Stalin.
This weekend the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel quoted from documents, apparently sourced to Snowden, which described Germany, France and other continental allies as “third-class partners,” subject to American spying. The classified National Security Agency documents described Americans as first-class and closer allies Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand as “second-class,” apparently exempt from some of the targeting. Yet as we all now know, the massive dragnet scoops up a huge amount of data from Americans and everyone else, regardless of “class.”
Morality and diplomacy have always been uneasy traveling companions. The moral high ground, which Obama has been so prone to claim, is more like the peak of a sand dune than a mountain. This week, the president who so values his public image and legacy is spending his time traveling among African photo-ops rather than explaining his government’s security practices as a practical necessity, no different under his administration than during that of George W. Bush.