I’m indebted to Roger Cohen for the new German word. It means spying on other people’s cell-phones, and it’s now overwhelmingly associated with the United States (even though Piers Morgan and other Brit tabloid machers pioneered it). In light of complaints from France and Germany, Ambers defends the agency:
Make no mistake: For the NSA, giving the U.S. president valuable information to the exclusion of every other country and leader in the world is not a morally ambiguous goal. It’s THE goal. It’s not controversial.
In order to map out out the geopolitical space within which the president will act, he needs to have solid intelligence, a good guesstimate, on what other countries are going to do and how they will respond to whatever he decides to do. The president wages war, conducts diplomacy negotiates economic treaties, imposes sanctions, and works to promote U.S. interests abroad. Strategic intelligence should inform all of these decisions, not simply those that involve the military.
So why the uproar? I think it’s partly because of a cultural gap between Europe and the US. Privacy is much more sacrosanct on the European continent than in the US or Britain – and in Germany undergirded by the memory of the Stasi’s surveillance. Merkel grew up in that climate in East Germany and to find the US doing what the Soviet client state once did is, well, almost as stunning as seeing the US use Soviet military installations to torture prisoners using Communist torture techniques.
But it’s less the principle of maximizing the president’s intelligence here than the specific method: wire-tapping. Beinart wishes America would consider foreigners’ perspectives:
American foreign policy has been most successful when the U.S. has been more, rather than less, sensitive to other countries’ pride. A good example is the Marshall Plan, which the United States funded but let the nations of Western Europe design, even though they organized their postwar economies in ways that looked socialistic to American eyes. Another is NATO, which at least in theory meant that the U.S. had obligations to smaller, weaker European nations, not just the other way around.
In the unipolar era that followed the Soviet Union’s demise, the U.S. didn’t show this kind of deference very often. Many conservatives, and some liberals, thought it didn’t need to. But that unipolar era is ending. In a world where other countries have more power relative to the U.S., it’s increasingly dangerous to believe we can do things to them we would never tolerate them doing to us.
Cohen has some great reporting from the German side of things:
Even before this furor, Germany was incensed by what it has perceived as a dismissive U.S. attitude. A senior official close to Merkel recently took me through the “very painful” saga of the Obama administration’s response to Syrian use of chemical weapons. It began with Susan Rice, the national security adviser, telling the Chancellery on Aug. 24 that the United States had the intelligence proving President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, that it would have to intervene and that it would be a matter of days. German pleas to wait for a United Nations report and to remember Iraq fell on deaf ears. Six days later, on Friday Aug. 30, Germany heard from France that the military strike on Syria was on and would happen that weekend — only for Obama to change tack the next day and say he would go to Congress.
I hear very similar complaints from my British Tory friends. For all Obama’s re-positioning of the US as a partner, not a hegemon, in practice, the disdain for allies’ particular interests can seem as dismissive as Rumsfeld or Cheney. I’m not sure how to fix this substantively, unless the Congress reins in the NSA. But a little more respect for our European allies would surely help.