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Dunsmore: Among Friends

The latest disclosure of classified National Security Agency documents by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden indicates 35 world leader’s cell phones have been tapped. This has caused a wave of anger from some of America’s closest allies.

When I first heard this story I was not at all surprised. As former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said, “Let’s be honest. We eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else.” But, he went on, “The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us.”

Yes. It is the vastness of the NSA’s surveillance program – most of which was put into place after 9/11 - that makes this latest crisis with friends quite different. It’s true that at least some of the indignation being expressed by European and other world leaders is because of the personal embarrassment attached to being spied on by your friend. But it would be wrong to dismiss their anger as being largely for domestic political consumption.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular, is sensitive to having her privacy violated by having her personal cellphone tapped. She grew up in East Germany - a Stalinist state where the secret police known as the Stasi ruled through the fear created by universal surveillance. Most Europeans raised in the Soviet bloc will share her feelings.

Additionally, Merkel has had a close personal relationship with President Barack Obama and feels betrayed – even though the White House claims the president didn’t know about her phone taps until last August and subsequently had them stopped.

Meanwhile, another long time American ally is also making its anger with Washington known - but in this case NSA leaks are not the problem. Saudi Arabia is furious with President Obama, most recently for his dithering over support for the rebels in the Syrian civil war. Frustration with America over that issue was apparently behind the recent Saudi refusal of a seat on the United Nations Security Council - something they had long coveted.

Actually, analysts who know the kingsdom well say the deeper Saudi Arabian concern is the possibility of détente between the US and Iran. The chances for that remain very remote. Still, Saudi Arabia sees itself besieged by Iran in another of those historic Islamic religious power struggles between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Saudi Sunnis and the Iranian Shiites are both now deeply involved in sectarian conflicts not just in Syria but in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. The Saudis fear that if the US and Iran resolve the Iranian nuclear issue and then normalize relations, Saudi Arabia’s and thus Sunni influence in the region will be significantly diminished.

As the nineteenth century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerstone wisely put it. “Nations have no permanent friends or allies. They only have permanent interests.” That said, I believe America’s latest crisis with the Europeans will be resolved because neither side’s interests have changed. I am less sure about the problems with Saudi Arabia, with whom the U.S. has increasingly divergent global interests.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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