More Bad News for the U.S. Amidst the Spying Row

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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It was recently revealed (amid an already relationship-straining NSA spying controversy) that U.S. intelligence agencies have intercepted communications not only of ordinary citizens in various countries, but also of their leaders. That such activity was carried out against some of the United States’ closest allies makes the revelations even more embarrassing. Though the recently uncovered documents apparently do not reveal any intelligence operations involving America’s Middle Eastern allies and foes, many in the region have commented on the recent development, most of them noting that the exposure of such practices will only erode the standing of the United States in the world. Statements from Mr. Obama that he was not even aware of some aspects of the spying operations, have led some to question whether the U.S. president even has a grasp on his own intelligence apparatus.

In one of its recent editorials, the Saudi Gazette reflects on the implications of the spying row, and especially revelations that the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone had been tapped: “Most likely this so-called revelation will change nothing. The White House says the tapping of Merkel’s phone will not happen in the future but when one system is put in operation, even before it is found out, its replacement is already ready. The people involved figure out how it was discovered, block yesterday’s system and a new better model is immediately activated. The Merkel phone allegations have shattered trust in the Obama administration and have undermined the crucial transatlantic relationship.”

According to a Gulf News editorial, the spying row also underlines the hypocrisy of the United States (and its ally the Great Britain), who often take the high ground: “What is obvious is that the spymasters developed and shared sophisticated software that trolled through billions of pieces of email from millions of people in the search for information deemed of value. What’s equally obvious is that any terrorist will have hidden those nuggets so deep that those programmes likely came up empty handed — save spying on us all. So when political leaders in London and Washington assume the moral high ground and lecture other nations about their failings, shortcomings or policies, they are speaking with all the authority of carnival hucksters — cheaters playing with a marked deck of cards.”

Of course, there are very few people who would be so naïve as to believe that spying doesn’t go on even among the best of friends. What seems to bother some, including the Gulf Times editorial staff however, is the scale of the intelligence collection revealed by recently leaked documents: “Nation spy on nations.  It’s no secret even Israel and the U.S., considered inseparable allies, spy on each other, but there’s a great deal of hypocrisy in the way the American establishment has dealt with the issue in recent times…. [T]he U.S. has taken the activity to a new level by monitoring private communication between people in the name of security. It is a dangerous precedent and amounts to interference in the lives of ordinary citizens who are fooled into thinking that they are living in a country that swears by the democratic principles of free speech and expression on one hand and does exactly the opposite in practice.”

When news of the tapping of the European leader’s communications came to light, President Obama was been quick to disavow any knowledge of it. That, according to another Arab daily Khaleej Times, raises a rather uncomfortable questions, i.e. who exactly is in charge: “There are concerns that President Barack Obama may not be on board, as powerful invisible characters comb America’s allies and adversaries for their little known agenda. That is why apparently Obama was seen making clarification to presidents of Brazil and Mexico and to Merkel and Hollande in Europe that nothing foul has been ordered on his behalf. This is a serious issue and it seems a two-tier policy orientation is at work. The dichotomy has to come to an end, and allies assured that the US would not breach the trust of its allies.”

Then there are those, like Yedioth Ahronoth’s Eytan Gilboa, who suggest that “the spying by the U.S. is a mere symptom of a far more complex problem….Europe’s leaders welcomed Obama’s election as U.S. president and his call for cooperation in leading the world, but such a format demands leadership skills and the ability to get things done. Europe’s leaders detected Obama’s weakness and feeble leadership time and time again, and the respect they had for him, on both a diplomatic and political level, significantly decreased….Obama has a lot of work ahead of him. A tough stance during the negotiations with Iran, such as the one he presented during the recent budget dispute with the Republicans in Congress, can serve as an appropriate response to the Snowden leaks and rehabilitate the U.S.’s international status and its relations with allies in Europe and other parts of the world.”

So what’s next? Many feel that not much is bound to change as the result of the recent leaks. The United States, like all the great powers, will continue with its intelligence operations, perhaps more cautiously. That pessimism is more tempered in the case of the Peninsula’s editorial staff, who have expressed the need for the United States to change its intelligence collection strategy: “The need for espionage and spying apart, the audacity to snoop on the mobile phone of one of the most powerful leaders of the world certainly points to an agenda that has not been laid out on good principles….The Obama administration needs to undertake an overhaul of its spying strategy as soon as possible, lest it should be unsuccessfully found trying to reverse its declining influence in the world.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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