Spy scandal another blow to fretting US allies

WASHINGTON - In Europe, America's friends are furious, in the Middle East they are mystified and in the Pacific, they are merely puzzled.

Mounting questions over the direction of US foreign policy and sweeping espionage operations are threatening to undercut the Obama White House's claim to have repaired relations with key allies that frayed under president George W. Bush.

The world is also looking on in alarm at political dysfunction in Washington and wondering whether it will curtail America's global role: Secretary of State John Kerry warned in a speech this week that US partners were now asking "can we be counted on?"

President Barack Obama, already beleaguered over the chaotic rollout of his health care law, now has another foreign policy headache. Europe is in uproar over explosive new leaks from secrets scooped up by fugitive analyst Edward Snowden.

European publics, who once swooned over the president, are fuming at claims the secretive US National Security Agency logged details of millions of their phone calls, and even apparently tapped the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Heather Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia in the Bush administration, said that the White House response so far had done little to placate its allies.

"Their approach has led the (European) leaders to up the volume because we are not understanding how significant this issue is for public opinion," said Conley, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In Washington, some officials privately disdain Europe's fury as overly theatrical - because some of the outraged governments are partners in counterterror spying themselves and US intelligence has thwarted attacks in Europe.

The attitude that spying is rampant everywhere, and Europe should just get over it, is also widespread.

"Everyone spies on everybody," Republican Senator Marco Rubio told CNN. "These leaders are responding to domestic pressures. None of them are truly shocked about any of this."

With Europe and the United States bound by cultural, political and military ties and common security vulnerabilities, it is unthinkable the alliance will buckle.

But it is also clear that trust in the United States among key allies has been undermined in a way that is forcing the political hands of European leaders.

This explains unusually blunt readouts by aides to Merkel and French President Francois Hollande of their bosses calls to Obama over the affair this week.

Some foreign affairs experts here fret that the controversy could limit the political space allied leaders have to back key US foreign policy priorities, including a proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Already, the European parliament has cast a non-binding vote to freeze a data exchange agreement with Washington on financial transactions, which intelligence agencies use to trace terrorist financing.

So far, Washington's public statements are mostly notable for a lack of contrition and have been delivered by mid-level officials.

"We have worked through our regular diplomatic channels to address some of those tensions," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday, insisting that US ties with allies were "deep and broad."

Obama's counterterrorism chief Lisa Monaco is the most senior aide to address the snooping storm since the Merkel allegations surfaced. But her choice of venue, the USA Today newspaper, could hardly be described as an effort to placate foreign public opinion.

The initial response to the Merkel claims meanwhile was counterproductive. Obama spokesman Jay Carney's statement that Washington is not and will not spy on Merkel's communications outraged Germans with the clear implication that it had done so in the past.

Obama himself, who has ordered several reviews into the scope and breadth of US surveillance activity is yet to comment publicly on the Merkel allegations.

Officials meanwhile declined several requests to discuss how Washington would handle Europe's anger going forward.

America's European allies are not the only ones feeling uneasy. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is signaling clear dismay about US engagement of Iran and Obama's failure to follow through on threats to strike Syria last month.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud told European diplomats that Riyadh's decision to turn down a UN Security Council seat was "a message for the US."

Another regional US ally, Israel, is registering skepticism about Obama's approach to nuclear talks with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Uncertainty is also bubbling in Asia, where questions are rising about US staying power after Obama aborted a trip due to a domestic political imbroglio this month.

Obama often argues, however, that his administration has revived US alliances.

"American leadership has been renewed and America's standing has been restored," he said in his 2011 State of the Union address.

But there are increasing reasons to question that assessment.

And the strong foreign policy record that helped underwrite the president's re-election is beginning to look in need of some work.