WASHINGTON – In Europe, America’s friends are furious, in the Middle East they are mystified and in the Pacific they are merely puzzled.
Mounting questions over the direction of U.S. foreign policy and sweeping espionage operations are threatening to undercut the Obama White House’s claim to have repaired relations with key allies that frayed under former President George W. Bush.
The world is also looking on in alarm at political dysfunction in Washington and wondering whether it will curtail America’s global role. Secretary of State John Kerry warned in a speech last week that U.S. partners are now asking, “Can we be counted on?”
President Barack Obama, already beleaguered over the chaotic rollout of his health care law, now has another foreign policy headache. Europe is in an uproar over explosive new leaks from secrets scooped up by fugitive analyst Edward Snowden.
The European public, which once swooned over Obama, are fuming at claims the secretive U.S. National Security Agency logged details of millions of their phone calls, and even apparently tapped the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Heather Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia in the Bush administration, said the White House response so far has done little to placate its allies.
“Their approach has led the (European) leaders to up the volume because we are not understanding how significant this issue is for public opinion,” said Conley, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In Washington, some officials privately disdain Europe’s fury as overly theatrical — because some of the outraged governments are partners in counterterrorism spying themselves and because U.S. intelligence has thwarted attacks in Europe.
The attitude that spying is rampant everywhere, and Europe should just get over it, is also widespread.
“Everyone spies on everybody,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told CNN. “These leaders are responding to domestic pressures. None of them are truly shocked about any of this.”
With Europe and the U.S. bound by cultural, political and military ties and common security vulnerabilities, it is unthinkable that the alliance will buckle.
But it is also clear that trust in the United States among key allies has been undermined in a way that is forcing the political hands of European leaders.
This explains unusually blunt readouts by aides to Merkel and French President Francois Hollande of their bosses calls to Obama over the affair last week.
Some foreign affairs experts in Washington fret that the controversy could limit the political space that allied leaders have to back key U.S. foreign policy priorities, including a proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
So far, Washington’s public statements are mostly notable for a lack of contrition and have been delivered by midlevel officials.
Obama’s counterterrorism chief, Lisa Monaco, is the most senior aide to address the snooping storm since the Merkel allegations surfaced. But her choice of venue, the newspaper USA Today, could hardly be described as an effort to placate foreign public opinion.
The initial response to the Merkel claims was counterproductive. Obama spokesman Jay Carney’s statement that Washington is not spying and will not spy on Merkel’s communications outraged Germans because the absence of the past tense implied that the U.S. has spied on her in the past.
Obama, who has ordered several reviews into the scope and breadth of U.S. surveillance activity, has yet to comment publicly on the Merkel claims.
America’s European allies are not the only ones feeling uneasy.
In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is signaling clear dismay about U.S. engagement of Iran and Obama’s failure to follow through on threats to strike Syria last month.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud told European diplomats that Riyadh’s decision to turn down a U.N. Security Council seat was “a message for the U.S.”
Uncertainty is also bubbling in Asia, where questions are rising about U.S. staying power after Obama aborted a trip due to a domestic political imbroglio earlier this month.
Obama often argues, however, that his administration has revived U.S. alliances.
“American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored,” he said in his 2011 State of the Union address.
But there are increasing reasons to question that assessment. And the strong foreign policy record that helped underwrite the president’s re-election is beginning to look in need of some work.