US diplomacy: How come everyone's mad at us?


US President Barack Obama speaks on October 25, 2013 in New York City.


Spencer Platt

It hasn't been the best of times — this week, this month, indeed, this year — for American foreign policy.

The US looks imbecilic abroad when a few dozen members of Congress can bring the government to a standstill — later striking a compromise that only offers the same hotheads another shot in the new year. Nor, of course, did the amateurish roll-out of Obamacare enhance the reputation of the leader of the free world.

But it wasn't the near-death experience on our debt limit or the website fiasco that's really upset our friends.

The Brazilian president canceled a state visit to Washington because it turns out we'd been reading her mail. She's got a domestic audience to soothe, of course, but really, Madame President, it shows you have moved into the big leagues when we care enough to eavesdrop on your private thoughts.

And that was just step one. President Barack Obama had no sooner apologized to French President Hollande for the same effrontery when the even-keeled Frau Merkel looked even more unamused than usual, her lack of mirth a result of the same boorish behavior on the part of the US. But what does she expect, doing business over a cell phone: that's hacker's heaven.

At least Obama still seems to be on what passes for friendly terms with Russia's ever-more-autocratic Putin. Of course, it helps that everyone in that relationship knows we've been reading each others' mail for years.

The real problem is not that we are spying on our friends; were the Brazilians, or the French, or the Mexicans, or the Germans, or all the others, actually surprised? After all, Edward Snowden just told the world that one of our 17 different intelligence agencies is listening in on American phone calls, so you'd have to suspect we might be listening in on the rest of the world as well.

The problem isn't that we are spying, but that it's been made public. Our European allies, and our Latin American ones as well, will eventually relax about the revelation of what their governments had surely long known. But there's no doubt the episode will not add to our international stature.

Nor are our European and Latin American allies the only ones hot and bothered about the world's superpower. The Saudis are nearly apoplectic. Prince Bandar, their intelligence chief and the most popular Saudi ambassador Washington ever had, recently told European diplomats that Saudi Arabia intended to initiate "a major shift" in policy away from its close relationship with the US. And his cousin Prince Turki, his predecessor in the intel job and also a former ambassador to Washington, had some particularly critical things to say about Washington's Syria policy.

In their pique, the Saudis even went so far as to show their displeasure with Obama's policies by, bizarrely, refusing to accept a seat on the UN Security Council that they had been maneuvering to obtain for years. That'll teach you, Obama.

Despite their peculiar target, the Saudis aren't rebels without a cause. They've got legitimate policy grievances with us: they don't like the fact that we helped escort Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to the door; that we then accepted the election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate as president; and that we're now withholding some military support from the new generals in charge of Egypt.

And the list goes on: they're unhappy that we haven't moved militarily to help replace Syria's Bashar al-Assad with a moderate Sunni junta. They don't like the way we criticized the Bahraini government for cracking down on their Shia dissidents. And, of course, they've never been happy with Washington's long-standing pro-Israel tack, which they see as the real impediment to a Palestinian state.

And while they are decidedly less vocal, virtually all our Arab friends in the Gulf agree with Saudi Arabia, as does Egypt and the always-beleaguered Abdullah of Jordan, whose kingdom, flooded with Syrian refugees, is shakier than ever.

But the real focus of Saudi anger with its oldest western ally is over Iran. The US and Iran have just taken the first serious step in nearly 35 years towards a rapprochement that, over the next few years, could lead to the biggest shake-up in the Middle East since the 1973 War.

Iran — Persian and Shiite, oil-rich and a future player in the region, as it was under the shah — is an outsider at the edge of a vast Arab world with a large Sunni majority. The self-radicalized pariah state that has been Iran since 1979 is infinitely preferable for Saudi Arabia and its Arab colleagues to an Iran with the kind of close ties to the US it had before the revolution.

An Iran brought back into the Western sphere of influence would be an economic, strategic, and military competitor in a way that hasn't been possible for a country starved by sanctions and virtually friendless.

The old Middle East of the past half century is disappearing as the Arab Spring and its aftermath marches on. Anticipating what will emerge from the changes gives the remaining monarchs plenty of cause for fear. Throw in a moderate Iran, and the Saudis and the rest of the Sunni Arab heartland are petrified.

Even though it would clearly be a benefit to us, a blooming US-Iranian relationship poses an enormous number of questions that one hopes the Obama administration is seriously considering. Certainly, the Arab world and Iran are thinking about them.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives in Owl's Head, Maine, and still travels frequently to the Middle East.