Frenemies Spying on Allies Fits Obama's Standoffish Profile

Diplomats are not surprised that the security agencies under US President Barack Obama have reportedly been monitoring close allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has failed to foster close relationships with other heads of state, causing much frustration around the world.


US President Barack Obama was scheduled to visit the Church of Our Lady cathedral in Dresden during a June 2009 whistle-stop visit to Germany. Diplomats from the German Foreign Ministry had painstakingly planned every last detail. They were looking forward to the photographs of Chancellor Angela Merkel with the US president in front of cheering crowds.

But the White House bristled. The president didn't want to do that -- that was the word in Washington. He reportedly placed little value on such photo ops, and he had to leave as quickly as possible, to get to an appearance at the Buchenwald concentration camp. The haggling went back and forth for weeks, and in the end the White House gave in, but only a little. Obama raced through Dresden. After their visit inside the church, Merkel had to shake hands with visitors by herself. The president had already disappeared.

On this day, at the latest, it must have dawned on diplomats that this US president was different from his predecessors. He was someone who did not attach value to diplomatic niceties nor to the sensitivities of his close friends, which he already had proven as a presidential candidate. At that time he put Chancellor Merkel in an awkward position by wanting to make a campaign speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate. This site was traditionally set aside for sitting presidents, which Obama also knew.

The Democrat, who prefers to spend his evenings with his family or alone in front of his computer, has made it no secret in Washington that he does not want to make new friends. That maxim especially applies to his foreign diplomacy. Unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama is loved by the people of the world, but much less by their heads of government. On the heels of recent revelations that US spy agencies might have monitored Chancellor Merkel's cell phone, the complaints about Merkel's "lost friend" Obama are misplaced. Obama doesn't want to be a friend

A Frosty Welcome

During a recent visit by a European head of government to Washington, the atmosphere was described as frosty by those in the entourage from Europe. Obama didn't find the time for even a little small talk, the sources said, and "it seemed to some like an appointment with a lawyer."

Obama angered Nicolas Sarkozy by choosing to dine with his family instead of with France's then-president during his visit to Paris. The Polish and Czech heads of state were informed by telephone by the president that a long-planned missile defense system would not be installed in their countries. And when it comes to Britain, traditionally America's closest partner, Obama was initially uncomfortable with the enshrined notion of a "special relationship" between the two countries. He may have expressed his own vision for the friendship when, on his state visit, he brought the queen an iPod as a gift. London was not amused.

The frustration extended well beyond the typical bruised vanities of the Europeans, whom members of the Obama administration like to describe behind closed doors as infantile. An African head of government said during a visit to Washington that he longed for the days of George W. Bush. At least with him, he said, one knew where one stood.

'Coolness Has Its Price'

Israel, one of the closest allies of the US, was irritated that Obama didn't find time for a state visit during his first term in office. Obama let the relationships with Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, and the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deteriorate so much that the troop withdrawals grew more difficult.

And Obama promised the Asian diplomats that he would be the "Pacific president," but he just cancelled his trip to the continent because the budget debate was more important to him.

So much non-diplomacy is new among US presidents. Reagan wooed Margarent Thatcher. George H.W. Bush confided in Helmut Kohl as Bill Clinton did in Tony Blair. George W. Bush, who many thought was an isolationist, could count on a whole team of "buddies," such as the then-prime minister of Spain, José Aznar, and the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He even entertained them at his ranch in Texas.

Merkel was also invited there, and in return Bush ate a dinner of wild boar in her German electoral district. The chancellor has from time to time said that she values such trans-Atlantic closeness.

That is over. "Coolness has its price," Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl wrote in 2010, adding that Obama appeared to have no genuine friend among world leaders. But what for? He has the NSA.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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maus99 10/24/2013
1. OBAMA a cold fish
It's nice to see Europeans are finally beginning to see the "real" Obama. He cares only about his legacy, which at this rate is going to be abismal. The Tea Party in the USA has known this for a long time. We want the USA to stop the wreckless spending. We want our bills to be paid and without borrowing money from China !
High Hat 10/24/2013
Finally, an article that lays the problems at the feet of the person responsible for them. Obama only values people for what he can gain from them. But I hope the Europeans don't feel too bad, Obama treats Congress the same way at home.
sneeekysteve 10/24/2013
3. Spying
The United States has listened to the phone calls of every postwar chancellor since Adenauer. That is for certain. I'm shocked that anyone finds this surprising. I thought everyone knew. Do you think that Mrs. Merkel's outrage is for internal consumption to placate the social democrats?
sharon_st100 10/25/2013
4. optional
Oh dear another case of spoiled arrogant Europeans whining that the President of the USA does not fawn over them and treat them like the most important people's in the world which they believe themselves to be. Europeans need a doze of reality. If the US withdraws from Nato, Germany and other European countries cannot have a defense budget as if they live next door to Canada as they currently do. They would have to slash billions from their social programs to take on the next lunatic that pops up in the Balkans. Have Europeans forgotten that it is Europe that cannot go for a few decades without producing a genocidal tyrant. The last one being only a mere few decades ago in the Balkans in the 1990's when ethnic cleansing and genocide-Sebrenicia occurred. Lets not forget who depends on who for their protection. On the contrary Obama's impatience with spoiled arrogant Germans sitting comfortably under American protection paid for by the American taxpayer is indeed quite admirable. Pity he cannot say what is really in his mind and the new generation of American leaders - the USA cannot wait to get rid of a bunch of free loaders who are certainly rich enough to have their adequate military capabilities but instead choose to suck the US dry. Europe and particular Germany has been a burden to the USA since WW1, draining it of blood and treasure for over 90 years now. Time to get rid of this unbearable burden.
kurtstull 10/25/2013
5. So ashamed, my apologies
As an American of German decent, as one holds the German people and your country in the highest esteem out of respect for your legendary hard work, intelligence, sensibility, orderliness, goodness, and civility, on behalf of our foolish President and the foolish voters who elected him, please, Chancellor Merkel, know that so many good people over here are aghast and ashamed, and accept our apologies for this incredible insult. You showed also that you have too much class and dignity to visibly express the anger that you could have upon this violation of your privacy and trust. What a great woman you are.
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