On July 26, 2008, hundreds of thousands of Germans poured into central Berlin, near where the wall that symbolized the Cold War once stood, to hear, and mainly to applaud, the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States, Barack Obama. The citizens of Germany, much like the citizens of France and Britain, had chosen Obama as their candidate even before the majority of Americans did. As far as Europe was concerned, this candidate representing the Democratic Party was the right person at the right time, following the era of the unpopular President George W. Bush and two wars -- in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Europe, military uniforms had gone out of style.
"Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt, there will be differences in the future," Obama said that night in his speech. "But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more -- not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity."
Five years have passed since Obama made this speech. He has won two elections since. But Europe's, and particularly Germany's, view of him has changed completely. That famous Berlin speech was another in a long line of pretty speeches that Obama and his advisers are adept at crafting. But if his aim was to make an historic speech, like the ones delivered by John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan at that exact same place in their respective times, he failed. The serious eavesdropping scandal that has recently cast a dark cloud over American-European relations has stained Obama's image.
This week, Obama didn't get a moment's rest. While his health care bill is facing multiple challenges, Congress, the European Union, the U.N., and many world leaders -- including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff -- as well as the whole of the European population, are demanding explanations from the American president for the rapid succession of recent revelations (ever since Edward Snowden revealed to the world four months ago just how big America's ears actually are).
The complications surrounding the leaks perpetrated by former National Security Agency contractor Snowden, 30, have put the respectable president in a difficult position: If he did not know about the eavesdropping, as he initially claimed (and as his chief of staff repeated this week to The Wall Street Journal), it doesn't make him look too good because it begs the question of what else is happening behind the back of the man who is supposed to be the strongest, most stable and most influential leader in the world. However, if he was in fact in the loop, his conduct does not fall in line with the vision of a new world he is constantly preaching. If the president was aware of the eavesdropping, it means that the world has not changed, even in the Obama era, since Obama, like his predecessor Bush, is well aware of the sensitivities and the cutthroat competition in the world and the necessity of eavesdropping and spying.
Embarrassment at the White House
The million dollar question now is whether Obama knew that his intelligence agencies were listening in on his closest allies. "It is hard to believe that Obama didn't know," said Republican lobbyist Bruce Jackson. "But if it's true, that's even worse." Jackson, a former military intelligence man, was widely quoted in the French Le Figaro this week. If Obama didn't know, it means that he has no control over his staff, and that is the last thing that a commander in chief wants.
Ever since his second elections win, Obama has been constantly getting into trouble: In Egypt, in Syria over the summer, and of course the Iranian gamble. At home, things are not any easier. The serious problems facing the Obamacare website are not making things any better for the president. Now the eavesdropping scandal is also applying pressure, and as if that weren't enough, along comes Forbes magazine and unseats him from the top of its list of the world's most powerful people. Russian President Vladimir Putin was named the world's most powerful person, pushing Obama down to the No. 2 spot.
As expected, global media and global politics are not easing up on Obama. Speaking of not knowing: U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said several days ago that Obama was not at fault for the botched rollout of Obamacare because he didn't know. That makes one too many things that Obama doesn't know, said a Wall Street Journal editorial this week.
As long as we are on the topic of Obamacare, comedian and liberal political satirist Bill Maher recently attacked the president's health care program on Piers Morgan's show on CNN. His main point of contention was the fact that the president had "lied" when he told the Americans that they could keep their old health care plans. Morgan, who supported Obamacare, agreed with his guest.
CBS commentator on national security Juan Zarate also leveled criticism at Obama, and, referring to the spying, said, "So in some ways if the president didn't know, shame on him, and shame on him and his leadership for not asking the question."
Obama also has trouble in the Senate. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been consistently one of the strongest supporters of the FISA Amendments Act, which authorizes the NSA's surveillance activities. But now, she has shifted gears and said that she is "totally opposed" to the "NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies -- including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany" and has even called for a "total review of all intelligence programs." Meanwhile, even the head of the NSA, Keith Alexander, arrived at the Senate for the hearing.
The White House has been humiliated. At first they preferred to remain ambiguous as to whether the president knew or not -- a decision that manifested itself in an announcement by spokesman Jay Carney. Speaking to curious reporters, he claimed that the scope of information gathered by the intelligence agency was so wide that it was impossible for Obama to be privy to all the details.
"We give them policy direction," Obama told ABC in an interview earlier this week. "But what we've seen over the last several years is their capacities continue to develop and expand, and that's why I'm initiating now a review to make sure that what they're able to do, doesn't necessarily mean what they should be doing."
Meanwhile, Snowden's father said this month that his son holds still more secrets he plans to share with the world, and that is why he must stay in hiding in Russia "to make sure the true story is told." But there is no need to wait for the next leak. The damage to the U.S. has already been done in the previous leaks to the various media outlets:
The Guardian did it a month ago, as did the Telegraph, when they reported how the Americans spied on 35 world leaders; Der Spiegel reported how the Americans have been eavesdropping on Merkel's mobile phone since 2002; and of course there is Le Monde, which revealed to the world how the Americans intercepted 70 million conversations and texts in France in less than a month.
On spying and hypocrisy
This week, during a visit to Washington, European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Elmar Brok of Germany said that "our confidence [in the Americans] is destroyed." It was a brief, but meaningful remark that reflects the general consensus in Europe, and is now exerting a lot of pressure on the Americans. But still, one has to admit, there is a lot of hypocrisy in this affair, and particularly in the demands that the Europeans are posing to Obama.
The U.S.'s allies, who are now protesting American conduct, themselves enjoy the fruits of American intelligence. Even the head of the French intelligence agency admitted that the French, too, have been known to spy. Everyone knows that everyone is eavesdropping on everyone, whenever they can. That is why the U.S. should be in no rush to apologize, even though Snowden has already pulled their pants down.
Obviously the Europeans, and not just them, have decided to take measures in international bodies to curb the phenomenon, even if it is quite naïve. Hollande, together with Merkel, has formulated a European Union initiative to prevent spying between the 28 union members. During a conference of European leaders in Brussels last week, the leaders decided to consider such an initiative in light of reports that the NSA had eavesdropped on Merkel's conversation and spied on French citizens.
Almost simultaneously, Germany is also cooperating with Brazil (whose president, who was reportedly also a victim of spying, has even canceled an official visit to the U.S. this month without rescheduling) on a resolution to be brought before the U.N. General Assembly aiming to prohibit spying on countries and citizens by monitoring use of electronic devices. The two countries have launched a campaign, meeting with diplomats from additional countries, in efforts to formulate a resolution regarding online privacy. Let it be noted that prior to Snowden's leak, many servers cooperated with the American spy agency, for a very long time.
But this entire affair is tainted with hypocrisy because the current era is such that everyone still spies on everyone, as needed, and simultaneously condemns the phenomenon, especially when getting caught. Many of us grew up on the spy novels of John Le Carre, in which the Americans were the good guys and the Soviets were the bad guys. Back then, the Europeans welcomed the Americans' spying capabilities. They were glad that the U.S. had invested billions (because only they could) in establishing the National Reconnaissance Office in 1961, one of the U.S.'s 16 intelligence agencies. The NRO designs, builds, and operates the spy satellites of the United States government, and provides satellite intelligence to several government agencies.
In France, in the top echelons of the government, the following story has been going around for years, though it is not yet clear whether it has any truth to it: At the end of the 1970s, there was a disagreement between Paris and Washington. The Americans relayed the following message to the French: The CIA has intelligence suggesting that your president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, is planning to secretly leave the presidential palace tonight in a small Austin Mini, and we also know the identity of the lady he is planning to visit.
The French were not alarmed. They replied: Go ahead, expose the story. It will only make the president more popular. The French were not shocked by the fact that the Americans were spying on their president. They were far more shocked by the assumption that having a mistress could be viewed as wrong.
The European conundrum
The Cold War, the same war that turned spying into a matter of routine, is behind us. But the world is far from being a safe place. Security-related espionage, especially the modern variety, is enacted against terror organizations. But in recent years, this espionage has been joined by economic and political espionage, and that is mainly what the Europeans are upset about.
The Global Research website posted recently that one of the main reasons behind the European outrage is the suspicion that the intelligence gathered by the NSA actually helped American companies, like in the cutthroat competition between aircraft makers Boeing and the European Airbus. According to suspicions, Airbus lost $2 billion in contracts due to intercepted information.
But the Americans need not apologize. On the contrary: On Tuesday, NSA director Alexander dropped this hot potato back into the hands of the Europeans when he alleged that the European intelligence agencies had given them the information that they had. He said this during a Senate hearing, together with National Intelligence Director James Clapper. The latter suggested that Obama did not know about all the eavesdropping.
In conclusion, it is safe to assume that a world war will not erupt as a result of this scandal. Germany, France, Britain and Spain will not launch an attack on the U.S., nor will they sever diplomatic relations. The world will remain the same world, except perhaps the eavesdropping will become sanctioned, as long as it is done under certain limitations.
As for the question of whether Obama knew, there is no answer. But it is not just Obama who is in hot water over this. The Europeans are also facing a challenge. This affair woke them up and led them to the realization, all of a sudden, that they have no choice but to use American programs and equipment to secure their information. This is quite a conundrum, but it comes with a lesson: It is best to have economic or technological capabilities, because that way you can have the biggest ears.