Washington, DC — 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.
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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.
Early Friday, the extent of European pique was evident again when a meeting of European heads of state ended with a demand that the United States enter into a “no-spying agreement” with European allies.
“The friendship and partnership between the European member states, including Germany, and the United States is not a one-way street,” Merkel said. “There are good reasons that the United States also needs friends in the world.”
Edward Joseph, a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, calls the anger in Europe over Snowden leaks and the NSA “really, really different from spats in the past, the scale of this, the amount of exposure Snowden has given on this incredibly expansive project.” He described the Europeans as “indignant.”
In the end, however, he believes the U.S. and Europe will resolve their differences over the NSA because the two powers remain “in sync.” As for the Saudis, Joseph said, the fractures will be much harder to paper over because the Saudis fundamentally disagree with U.S. policies.
The Saudis “don’t like that we spent two and a half years trying to avoid Syria, lecturing them about who to give their aid to when we haven’t given really anything in lethal aid,” Joseph said. “It’s really over substance.”
Saudi Arabia’s exasperation has been brewing for some time, with U.S. policy toward Syria at the top of the list, experts said.
Obama’s cancellation of missile strikes last month against Damascus for crossing his “red line” on chemical weapons, and his withholding of significant military aid to moderate rebels, are seen by the Saudis as evidence that Washington has gone wobbly on what Riyadh believed was a shared goal to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“The Saudis saw the use of chemical weapons as the threshold for a deeper American involvement in Syria and to their astonishment there was no such thing,” said Simon Henderson, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Saudis also are unnerved, experts said, by Washington’s recent decision to engage in new talks with Iran over its nuclear program. Obama’s readiness to enter negotiations, coupled with the canceling of the missile strikes on Syria, has raised doubts among Saudi leaders that he really would use force to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear arsenal that would make Iran the dominant power in the Persian Gulf.
Saudi Arabia’s priorities are rooted in the centuries-old rivalry between the majority Sunni branch of Islam, of which the kingdom is seen as the champion, and the Shiite branch led by Iran.
The confrontation’s latest bout was uncorked by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which replaced a Sunni regime with a Shiite-run government. It is now playing out in Syria, where Iran is backing the regime dominated by Alawites, a Shiite offshoot, and Saudi Arabia is supporting the overwhelmingly Sunni opposition.
The sectarian hatreds are infecting the region, especially Lebanon, whose Iran-backed Shiite militia movement, Hezbollah, is providing fighters to Assad.
The Saudis’ displeasure with the United States’ reluctance to become embroiled in the sectarian rivalry burst into public on Oct. 17, when the kingdom abruptly rejected a two-year U.N. Security Council seat for which it had rigorously campaigned.
Several days later, according to news reports, the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, told an unidentified Western diplomat that the decision “was a message for the U.S., not the U.N.,” and that he’d also be scaling back cooperation with the CIA in the training of moderate Syrian rebels in Jordan.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met in Europe this week with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, acknowledged the U.S.-Saudi differences in London on Monday. He insisted, however, that overall ties are solid and that the sides remain “on the same page.”
“We worked closely with Saudi Arabia on a range of regional, political and security issues, including Syria, Iran, Middle East peace, Egypt,” said Kerry. “We’re still working with them on those.”
Some experts countered that it’s too early to tell how much damage has been done to relations between the United States and one of its longest Arab allies.
They noted that some differences may prove to be irreparable, such as U.S. reluctance to be drawn more deeply into Syria. As a result, the Saudis could step up support for the most effective Sunni rebel groups, which are those linked to al Qaida.
“The Saudis will arm whoever the hell they please and that will deepen the sectarian dimension of the conflict,” said Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former senior State Department official.
With the United States moving toward petroleum independence, the coming years could see even wider swings in the decades-old U.S.-Saudi relationship, he said.
“There is something going on here. It’s like a tectonic shift,” he said. “We have to make some adjustment to it.”
As for Europe, Merkel has said she wants the United States to agree to the no-spying accord before the end of the year. That could well be a difficult goal, with an Obama-ordered study of U.S. surveillance practices that is to be completed also by the end of the year already behind schedule because of the nearly three-week-long shutdown of the federal government.