President Obama offered a half-grovel last week when he asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to forgive him for the National Security Agency's tap on her cellphone. What he didn't offer was an admission of wrongdoing or authentic contrition. He merely invoked the Sgt. Schultz defense: He "knew nothing, absolutely nothing" about what his spooks were up to.
No president can afford to sound like the bumbling guard in the German prisoner-of-war camp in the popular 1960s sitcom "Hogan's Heroes." But to hear him tell it, Barack Obama never knows what's going on in his administration, whether about Benghazi, the Justice Department's Fast and Furious gunrunning scheme, IRS abuse of conservative groups, or the health care rollout that was clearly not ready for prime time. He has made the United States the punch line for jokes around the world.
Either Mr. Obama didn't know that U.S. government agencies have been snooping on dozens of world leaders, including Mrs. Merkel, or he's not being straight with our allies and the American public. Neither is acceptable.
The concept of plausible deniability is being stretched to its limits. The German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported Sunday that Mr. Obama was told of the tap on Mrs. Merkel's telephone in 2010 by Gen. Keith Alexander, the chief of the NSA. Mr. Obama "not only did not stop the operation, but he also ordered it to continue," an unidentified, but high-ranking NSA official was quoted as saying. The National Security Agency disputed the report.
Mrs. Merkel was not placated by the apology. She is sending German intelligence chiefs to Washington this week to confront the Obama administration. "We need trust among allies and partners," Frau Merkel told reporters in Brussels. "Such trust now has to be built anew." The German chancellor will have to get in line. Other heads of state, among them French President Francois Hollande, are equally incensed by these revelations of Edward Snowden. Brazilian President Vilma Rousseff declined to attend a White House state dinner in Washington last week because her telephone and email accounts were compromised.
Dick Cheney, the former vice president, was asked by ABC News on Sunday about waning U.S. influence in the Middle East, and what he said also could apply to Mr. Obama's other foreign policies. "Our friends no longer count on us, no longer trust us, and our adversaries don't fear us," said Mr. Cheney. "That was the cornerstone and the basis of the U.S. ability and influence."
This furor contrasts sharply with the rock-star reception Mr. Obama received in Berlin in July 2008, when he assured swooning Europeans that he would repair relations strained by Mr. Cheney's boss, George W. Bush. "The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand," Mr. Obama said, speaking not far from the place where the Berlin Wall divided the city for nearly three decades. Europeans, like Americans voters, are pained now with buyer's remorse.