WASHINGTON -- Whether miffed over spying revelations or feeling sold out by U.S. moves in the Middle East, some of the United States’ closest allies are so upset that the Obama administration has gone into damage-control mode to ensure the rifts don’t widen and threaten critical partnerships.
The quarrels differ in their causes and degrees of seriousness. As a whole, however, they pose a new foreign policy headache for an administration whose overseas track record is seen in many quarters at home and abroad as reactive and lacking direction.
In Europe and the Middle East, rifts that once would’ve been quietly smoothed over have exploded into headlines and public remonstrations.
The uproar in Europe over revelations from fugitive former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the United States spied on as many as 35 government leaders, including Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, has become so great that early Friday 28 European leaders said Merkel and French President Francois Hollande would open negotiations with the United States over a “no-spying agreement.”
In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, already fed up with U.S. reluctance to get more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war, has become alarmed by Obama’s overtures to the Saudis’ archenemy, Iran, with which the Saudis are locked in a battle for regional supremacy. Reports indicate it is considering breaking over cooperation with the Obama administration on a range of issues, including training for so-called moderate Syrian rebels.
Once-ironclad ally Egypt, meanwhile, is upset that the U.S. is cutting some of its massive annual aid amid a dispute over getting the country back on track after a military coup that ousted an Islamist president elected after a popular uprising. Earlier this month, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told a state newspaper that U.S.-Egyptian ties were in “turmoil” and that “anyone who says otherwise is not speaking honestly.”
For Middle East observers, the Saudi case, especially, has been fascinating to watch as the kingdom rarely allows diplomatic spats to go beyond palace walls.
“It’s part of an overall trend, America’s disengagement and a seemingly aloof Obama, and in the Syrian case, that aloofness ran counter to the Syrians’ and Saudis’ interests,” said Andrew Tabler, who focuses on Syria and U.S. policy in the Middle East at The Washington Institute For Near East Policy. “The Syrian conflict has become so regionalized that our Saudi allies will now openly criticize the White House. It’s amazing.”
Nobody’s expecting breaks in relations. But U.S. diplomats are working hard to ensure that the disputes don’t escalate. So far, those efforts appear to be failing.
The alleged NSA monitoring of Merkel’s phone is a key case in point. On Wednesday, Merkel confronted Obama about the claim in a phone conversation in which she reportedly used words like “unacceptable.” The White House later said in a statement that Obama had assured her that her cellphone was not being targeted. But a German statement recounting the same call made no mention of Obama’s assurances, and it was clear the next day that Obama had had no calming effect when the Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to deliver another dressing down.