The NSA Leaks Are Bad, but Syria Hurt U.S. Credibility More

The NSA Leaks Are Bad, but Syria Hurt U.S. Credibility More

For an administration that built its foreign policy strategy around "restoring our reputation abroad" (and the media that played along with that narrative), it is cause for alarm that European allies like Germany are now mad at us. Western European opinion, after all, was the evidence that academics, the New York Times, and the Democratic Congress used to illustrate America’s declining reputation under Bush (never mind that the U.S. reputation in Asia and Africa generally went up in polling from 2001-2008, and in the Middle East has rapidly declined since Bush left office). This was the same mindset that led President Obama to give his global zero speech in Berlin instead of say, Tokyo or Jerusalem, which actually face the threat of nuclear armed missiles.

Now the media is lamenting Asian outrage over the NSA scandal. In the wake of reports in the Washington Post on joint U.S.-Australian collaboration to monitor Chinese and Southeast Asian communications, the Chinese government spokesman expressed "deep concern" (Beijing was shocked…shocked!), while the Indonesian Foreign Ministry called in the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta to protest this "violation of diplomatic norms." Google this latest round of Snowden leaks on Asia and you will find a dozen headlines that say something like "Outrage over NSA Spying Spreads to Asia."

And yet, what has struck me in numerous recent discussions with senior politicians and officials from East Asian allies is how little the NSA revelations come up in conversation. Our East Asian allies know that Henry Stimson ("gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail") is no longer Secretary of State. With a rising China and a nuclear armed North Korea, they have become quintessential realists and know how the game is played. What worries them much, much more than Snowden is Syria. It comes up in private conversation all the time. I have tried to explain that our "never mind" on Syria should not lead governments in Seoul or Tokyo to question the resolve of Americans to defend our allies against growing threats in East Asia. I have pointed to recent surveys showing that more Americans than ever say we should fight to protect Korea if it comes under attack from the North. And I have noted that despite the Asia pivot’s drift in recent months, the U.S. military continues giving top priority to the region. 

We are fortunate to have Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Park Geun-hye in Seoul, and Tony Abbott in Canberra. They are not going to give up on us as easily as the Saudis and other Gulf allies have over Syria and Iran policy. Nor are our friends in Southeast Asia, who express outrage over the NSA stories because they can, but keep American close as China rises because they must. But even though the NSA story dominates the headlines, the administration’s prevarications over Syria continue to linger for the elites who drive national strategy in these countries.  Yes, they want to like us — but they also need our enemies to fear us.