Thanks to Edward Snowden, President Obama not only missed a big dinner date this week, but he’s become the brunt of anger of world leaders gathering in Brussels.
Instead of hosting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Wednesday night at the White House for his only State Dinner of the year — an event the Brazilians canceled weeks ago over reports of U.S. spying on their officials — Mr. Obama was making soothing phone calls to the leaders of Germany and France over the same subject.
Things didn’t get better Thursday as Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported more uncomfortable Snowden-sourced spying revelations, and European leaders united in anger at a summit where German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the reports had shattered trust in the Obama administration and undermined the crucial trans-Atlantic relationship.
According to reports in various outlets citing confidential memos obtained from Mr. Snowden, the National Security Agency swept up more than 70 million phone records in France, may have tapped Mrs. Merkel’s own cellphone, and was able to monitor 35 world leaders’ communications in 2006.
Mrs. Merkel’s unusually stern remarks as she arrived at the European Union gathering indicated she wasn’t placated by Wednesday’s phone conversation she had Wednesday with Mr. Obama, or his personal assurances that the U.S. is not listening in on her calls now.
“We need trust among allies and partners,” Mrs. Merkel told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. “Such trust now has to be built anew. This is what we have to think about.”
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This week wasn’t supposed to be like this. Normally, weeks with state dinners are the best part of being president — glitzy affairs with fine wine, glamorous fashion, sublime music and a sincere toast of enduring friendship for the president’s honored guest.
Instead, there was no need for Mr. Obama to dress up, as Ms. Rousseff stayed home in Brasilia in a huff over revelations about the U.S. spying on her personal communications, a secret exposed by Mr. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.
The canceled state dinner was just one embarrassing episode in an ugly foreign-policy week for Mr. Obama, even though those events were largely overshadowed by even worse news coverage at home about the problems with the Obamacare website.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that Mr. Obama “reassured” Mrs. Merkel that the U.S. isn’t spying on her communications, although he wouldn’t say whether Washington did so in the past. He said the administration is dealing with the diplomatic fallout behind the scenes.
“We have diplomatic-relations channels that we use in order to discuss these issues that have clearly caused some tension in our relationships with other nations around the world, and … that is where we are having those discussions,” he said.
Mr. Carney said the surveillance benefits U.S. allies, including Germany.
“We, like other nations, gather foreign intelligence because it is in our national security interest to do so,” he said. “There are real threats out there against the American people and against our allies, including Germany, including allies around Europe and around the world.”
The White House may soon face other irked heads of state and government. The Guardian said Thursday it obtained a confidential memo suggesting the NSA was able to monitor 35 world leaders’ communications in 2006.
The memo said the NSA encouraged senior officials at the White House, Pentagon and other agencies to share their contacts so the spy agency could add foreign leaders’ phone numbers to its surveillance systems, the report said.
And the Obama administration was grappling with more troubling news from Saudi Arabia, whose leadership expressed public dissatisfaction with U.S. policy in the Middle East, especially toward Syria, Iran and Egypt. The Saudis are reportedly threatening to scale back their longtime partnership with Washington over Mr. Obama’s perceived weakness in dealing with Syria, and for reaching out to Iran’s new president without consulting Riyadh.
“What Obama has never really understood is that you’ve got to treat your allies better than your adversaries,” said Michael Rubin, a specialist on the Middle East at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
“He came into office promising to reboot America’s image in the Middle East, and to restore frayed alliances which were allegedly devastated by the Bush administration. What he’s managed to do is ruin relationships which have been carefully cultivated by both Democrats and Republicans for decades, specifically Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Mr. Rubin said.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry tried to downplay the tensions this week, insisting that the U.S. and the Saudis are “on the same page” about the need to resolve the civil war in Syria.
“It is our obligation to work closely with them — as I am doing,” he said after meeting with the Saudi foreign minister.
The fallout with Brazil, France and Germany over U.S. spying is less likely to have a lasting impact, said Joseph Wippl, a former CIA employee and a professor of international relations at Boston University.
“I can’t ever remember that espionage really changed a relationship in a basic way,” Mr. Wippl said. “My view is we don’t have friends or enemies, we just have partners.”
Although Mrs. Merkel has reacted angrily to the reports of U.S. spying, Mr. Wippl said the Obama administration would be foolish not to monitor her closely.
“If we’re not trying to listen in on the conversations of the second-most powerful person in the world, then something is wrong with us,” he said.
Mr. Rubin, and a growing number of critics, say the longer-lasting problem for the U.S. is the belief in some parts of the world that the Obama administration has lost its credibility on foreign-policy matters.
“When the root of the Saudi complaint and the Israeli complaint and the Egyptian complaint is that you don’t consult with us, you’re not treating us like friends, ultimately that suggests a real problem,” Mr. Rubin said. “We’ve managed to convince everyone that the United States is untrustworthy.”
• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.