Israel Hayom: Big brother Obama

Professor Avraham Ben-Zvi - Israel Hayom - July 5, 2013

The recent revelation that the U.S. administration eavesdropped on Western European leaders -- allies of the U.S. -- is sparking outrage. It turns out that the U.S. is so obsessed with knowing everyone's positions that it has crossed all lines.

Twenty-eight years have passed since the arrest of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, and his release is still nowhere in sight.

Though a Central Intelligence Agency-appointed committee specifically concluded that Pollard's actions did not cause any damage to the U.S.'s national security, the American Naval Intelligence Command analyst continues to waste away in prison, serving a life sentence for handing classified information over to a foreign country -- Israel. All his pardon requests have been met with obstinate refusal, and there is no doubt that in the collective memory of the American bureaucratic machine, his name will go down as someone whose crimes are no less severe than those of history's most dangerous nuclear spies.

No one disputes the fact that Uncle Sam's hegemony in the international arena grants the U.S. an advantage over all other players. However, despite the knowledge that the playing field is not level, nor will it ever be, there is an outrageous disparity between the U.S. authorities' draconian treatment of Pollard and the protective immunity envelope that the Obama administration is demanding for itself over allegations of unprecedented wiretapping and surveillance on allies and enemies, both domestically and abroad.

Henry Stimson, U.S. Secretary of State under President Herbert Hoover at the end of 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s and later President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's war secretary during World War II, famously said that "gentlemen don't read each other's mail," but that remark has apparently long been forgotten.

But even Stimson, who vehemently opposed the idea of spying on the diplomatic correspondence of countries whose relations with the U.S. were charged and crisis-ridden, eventually became disillusioned and abandoned his romantic, utopian notions on proper conduct in international relations. This happened against the backdrop of the mounting threat emanating from Nazi Germany (and its allies -- fascist Italy and Japan), which threatened the global balance of power and vital American interests. Ultimately, it was Stimson who convinced Roosevelt to unilaterally abandon the U.S.'s 20-year policy of isolationism and intervene in the rapidly deteriorating global crisis.

A long time has passed since the task of defeating the murderous totalitarian Nazis was successfully completed. The Cold War era has also been pushed aside, making way for a world where a single superpower -- the U.S. -- stands alone at the top.

In the shadow of the September 11 attacks

In light of this American hegemony, and the fact that the Obama administration (despite its weakness) currently faces no threat or palpable challenge to its vital interests or its premiership in the world order -- at least in the short-run (even in the war on terror the U.S. has had some impressive victories) -- one would expect the White House, which boasts a strictly liberal world view, to show some restraint and moderation even though it possesses the technological capability of invading the privacy of friendly neighbors and traditional allies, not to mention the millions of American citizens who were subjected to the web of surveillance spun by the administration.

Though the U.S.'s hyped up security concerns, under the shadow of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the trauma they caused, are understandable (even though the effects of this trauma subsided somewhat when the U.S. dealt some devastating blows to al-Qaida), this does not justify the use of gargantuan surveillance programs, developed by the National Security Agency, on countries like France, Italy, Japan, Greece, India, South Korea and Mexico, whose embassies and consulates in Washington became the targets of covert surveillance.

This, of course, comes on top of the revelation that listening devices were planted in the Brussels headquarters of the European Union and in the organization's offices in Washington and New York (and the infiltration of the organization's internal computer network), which brought back the Cold War era atmosphere in one fell swoop. Though efforts to crack the enemy's concealed secrets in these tense times are meant to fight inter-bloc battles over the character of the world order, the recent revelations leaked by Edward Snowden -- who was exposed to the National Security Agency's secrets and technological capabilities -- point to an endless, uninhibited obsession without limits or limitations on behalf of the American superpower.

And indeed, when it comes to massive, systematic infiltration of the communications systems of such a high-ranking diplomatic and economic partner like the European Union, even dialectic thinking like German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's would have a hard time justifying such conduct with the existence of clear and immediate danger to vital American interests, emanating from Brussels, of all places.

It is safe to assume that the war on terror was not the main objective of the American Big Brother, whose surveillance activity makes George Orwell's terrifying vision in 1984 look marginal. So if security considerations, anchored in an aspiration to protect the home without compromise and without inhibitions, were not the main objective, it must be asked: What motivated the administration, in such polar contrast to Henry Stimson's naive idealism, to read the (electronic) mail addressed to their neighbors and friends (from whom they receive continuous information in legitimate channels) in such an extensive and systematic manner?

The explanation, if not the justification, for the decision to turn allies -- namely the European Union -- into intelligence-gathering targets stems, apparently, from the many disagreements between the bicoastal partners on a wide range of global and regional issues, which often carry a high price tag.

From a strategic standpoint, the American patron sought to prepare in advance for negotiations on various topics, and be closely familiar with its allies' standpoints, even if it came at the cost of breaching their trust and not playing by the longstanding traditional rules.

The goal of gaining inside information (and simultaneously discovering the differences in approach and unveiling the varying standpoints within the European Union in preparation for a "divide and conquer" strategy), overshadowed every other consideration in Uncle Sam's view.

Thus, for example, over the last decade, frequent and repeated tensions erupted between Washington and Brussels over the question of indirect funding and benefits granted separately by the U.S. and Europe to their aircraft manufacturing companies. This friction erupted while fat contracts for the purchase of Boeings or Airbuses loomed in the background.

America as an aggressive hegemonic superpower

Relations weren't perfect on a strategic level either. Among other conflicts, a severe crisis erupted recently over the issue of secret detention facilities in Eastern Europe, where the CIA held terror suspects. The crisis escalated when it emerged that these terror suspects were habitually taken through airports in Germany and Britain on their way to prisons in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa despite the repeated and adamant objections of the European parliament.

The same sort of things were said in the diplomatic realm, when the U.S. and the European Union were, for years, in disagreement over the war in Iraq and the desired path for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Though this is just the tip of the iceberg, under which many controversial disagreements are still concealed (on issues like the environment, customs taxes and entry visas), it is still very difficult to justify such a blatant deviation from the norms of conduct among allies. Even when talking about the peak of the international relations mechanism in the age of technology, which gives room to endless opportunities for gathering and intercepting intelligence.

The fact that the American superpower lent a supportive hand to the crushed economy of Western Europe after the conclusion of WWII, and, with its Marshall Plan, provided immeasurable assistance in rehabilitation, cannot be used as an excuse for such patronizing, manipulative and hurtful behavior.

It is no wonder that the recent revelation of secret wiretapping of European Union institutions sparked the rage of European leaders, and currently puts the initiative for a new commerce agreement between Washington and Brussels into question. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's minimization of the surveillance affair, saying that it is an intrinsic part of any country's efforts to understand what other countries are thinking, only served to fan the flames and drew particularly angry responses from Berlin and Paris.

It is here that one can find unlimited irony. U.S. President Barack Obama's America certainly conducts itself like a hegemonic tyrant, but only toward its close allies across the Atlantic Ocean. However, when it comes to its actual enemies, those who challenge its leadership or threaten the stability of the entire mechanism, the White House comes off as a kind of Gulliver, bound and gagged and tied down by cables and ropes of its own making.

In other words, the infinite invasiveness demonstrated by the main player in the international arena hasn't been converted into aggressive policy in the face of defiant regimes (like Iran's) or to combat crimes against humanity (like the ones currently being committed in Syria). On these fronts, Washington is actually hesitant and overly careful, though it presumably possesses enormous amounts of data regarding the goings on in Tehran and Damascus.

The Obama administration has yet to strike the right balance between values and interests; between the lofty, utopian ideals and manipulative, Machiavellian behavior; between the semblance of transparency and infinite, invasive surveillance of partners' secrets.

And thus, while leakers like Bradley Manning (the American soldier who provided secret documents to internet whistleblower Wikileaks) and Edward Snowden are shown no mercy or forgiveness, it turns out that the worst offenses are actually being committed by the administration itself. There is nothing left to do but wait and see whether the administration is able to close the gap between the desired reality and the actual reality, and how much this embarrassing scandal will hinder its ability to serve as a leader to the international community in general, and the European Union in particular, during this time of economic uncertainty and strategic and diplomatic challenges.

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