Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Germany Problem

In the novelist Heinrich Boll's The Safety Net, which appeared in 1979, Fritz Tolm, elected to become the main representative of German business interests, feel suffocated by the intrusive security measures undertaken by the state to protect him from harm. His private life is upended. Everywhere he is spied upon. Tolm ends up chucking it all and moving into a vacant vicarage.

It is not clear whether German chancellor Angela Merkel has read Boll's novel and, coming off a fresh election triumph, she does not appear to be tiring of her post. But she is herself familiar enough with the dangers of an omnicompetent state that seeks to spy on its citizens. She grew up in East Germany, where the Stasi gathered so much information about its subjects that it drowned itself in a flood of official records. Now Merkel has once again been spied upon by her putative American ally. The latest revelation in the German weekly Der Spiegel—courtesy of Edward Snowden who remains holed up in Russia (doesn't Obama realize that it would be better to reach an agreement with him and extract him before he does further damage?)—that the National Security Agency has been tapping her personal phone—as well as those of numerous other world leaders—has triggered an uproar.

Together Brazil and Germany are pushing for the United Nations to pass a general resolution in support of internet privacy. Next week Germany and the European Union are planning to send delegations to Washington to institute further inquiries and to meet with the Obama administration. Gerhard Schindler, head of the Federal Intelligence Service, is said to be part of the planned delegation. If they are met with stonewalling, as the Europeans have in the past, relations will fray further. Trade talks with Europe are already being jeopardized.

The scandal has a number of other effects that are prejudicial to America's reputation abroad. President Obama's campaign in 2008 was partly based on the proposition that he restore America's luster after George W. Bush had harmed it. But now it is Obama who is starting to appear as a heinous, or at least mendacious, figure. His administration stated that it was not currently spying on Merkel, but did not dispute that it might have taken in the place, which is another way of saying that it did. Another peculiarity of the spying is that it most likely pointless. What information did American intelligence expect to glean from Merkel's cell phone that would have justified the risks of discovery? What the affair smacks of is a bureaucracy running amok, claiming perks and prerogatives and powers for itself that do not promote national security. Instead, they have harmed it. Merkel herself has termed the snooping a "grave breach."

It's not hard to see why. Germans are becoming increasingly restive with Washington's treament of them as vassals. The cold war is over. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. But American intelligence services appear to be more active than ever in spying on our closest allies. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich as well as Merkel have tried to sweep the scandal under the rug in recent months. No longer. Friedrich looks as though he has been taken in by the Americans, at least in the eyes of the German public. The Social Democratic Party, which Merkel hopes to entice into a grand coalition, is taking swipes at her for trying to declare the spying affair over in the past. It clearly isn't. What further revelations might emanate from Snowden?

Whether cooperation between Germany and America will be seriously damaged on intelligence sharing is an open question. But that profound damage has been done to America's image is not. Obama, who entered office as the savior of America's reputation, is harming it as badly as did George W. Bush.

Image: White House Flickr