US snooping has set back foreign policy

Washington's most difficult overseas challenge is not Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt or Russia. Nor is it the serious foreign relations rift with Germany, caused by the revelation that the US has been spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel for several years.

Instead, the most significant hurdle for President Barack Obama in this, his turbulent second term, is to hose down the perception that his administration is perceived as the new Spy Central.

Even US Secretary of State John Kerry conceded on Friday that the spooks went too far. And German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spoke for most of the world when he said that tapping Dr Merkel's phone is no way to fight terrorism.

So the assertion by the United States National Security Agency's (NSA) head, General Keith Alexander, at a public congressional hearing this week that the US was merely analysing metadata handed over by European allies raises a fundamental question. Quite simply, why did it take so long for this revelation to emerge?

Yes, every country has surveillance programmes - in a physical and a cyber sense - so what makes the US unique in this respect?

In part, it is because the world would not have known of its wide scope without the leaks in June this year from fugitive defence contractor Edward Snowden.

Add to that the fact that the US made several accusations this year about what it said was a sustained campaign of corporate and defence-related cyber spying by China.

It is now ironic that the gravity and reach of the US surveillance far outweigh its own allegations against Beijing.

On June 8, two days after it was revealed that the NSA had accessed millions of Verizon phone records, Mr Obama said the US was striking "the right balance" between security and privacy.

Those words came back to haunt him this week, with the allegation by German news magazine Der Spiegel on Tuesday that the US surveillance dragnet included several South-east Asian nations as well, with the apparent exception of Japan and Singapore.

The White House has antagonised and alienated an estimated 35 nations, leaving an indelible blot on its own international relations. US diplomats in Europe have taken the heat for the White House. Not one but three US ambassadors were summoned last week by the governments of Germany, France and Spain.

That said, the crisis has catalysed rare unity among European nations. In Brussels last week, all 28 European Union (EU) leaders issued a statement voicing grave concern about US spying.

While staunch US ally Britain was also a signatory, it stands alone among its EU neighbours in refusing to condemn Washington's surveillance regime. But the Obama administration must now deal with pressure from Germany and France, which are both pressing the US for a "no spying" assurance.

President Obama's role must come directly under scrutiny to determine what exactly he knew about the eavesdropping and how much of it he either endorsed or ignored.

There are also two essential questions that the US must answer, in order to ascertain whether or not its surveillance agencies went rogue and to what extent the oversight process - assuming there is one in place - was compromised.

The first relates to its Patriot Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2001 after the 9/11 attacks.

At issue is whether or not its implementation has infringed privacy and civil liberty in the pursuit of maintaining national security.

The second relates to the secret court system spawned by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) that was created by Congress in 1978 and amended in 2008. Because its deliberations on whether or not to authorise eavesdropping operations are carried out in secret, it will be harder to ascertain whether Fisa courts overstepped their jurisdiction.

But beyond the continuing assurances by the White House that it is reviewing surveillance policies, the world has a right to know where exactly the buck stops. If the Obama administration cannot do that, then it must squarely take the blame for a new and potentially dangerous era in electronic espionage.

- CHINA'S decision on Tuesday to put its nuclear submarine fleet on display for the first time was not just a naval public relations exercise. It was a deliberate show of power designed in part to counter Japan's growing nationalism.

Since August last year, both countries have been at loggerheads over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

Neither side shows any sign of backing down or engaging in dialogue. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last week that he was prepared to be more assertive if China continued to flex its muscle. On the other hand, Beijing warned that it would protect itself in whatever manner it deemed necessary.

The only tangible diplomacy came from former Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda, who urged both sides to find common ground. But that will be hard to achieve if Japan carries out its recent threat to shoot down Chinese drones that invade its airspace.

Such an outcome would not just put both nations on the brink of armed aggression but could potentially pitchfork Washington - which is committed by the Mutual Security Treaty of 1951 to defending Japan - into the escalating tension between Tokyo and Beijing. But the world's three largest economies would surely have little interest in any conflict that would cause global geopolitical ripples.

- NO, you didn't read this wrong. President Vladimir Putin, of all people, really did say this week that gays and lesbians are welcome at the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi.

On the face of it, the announcement might lull some

into believing that Mr Putin is becoming a liberal Renaissance man. However, the reality could not be more different as his statement must be seen in the context of his recent anti- gay propaganda law.

Now, with just three months remaining before the Games open, it seems Mr Putin will go to any lengths to erase bitter memories of the boycott that blighted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, even if he must stoop to hypocrisy.

dmcmahon@sph.com.sg


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