Obama, Merkel discuss NSA in Berlin as president continues Europe trip

President Obama traveled to Berlin Wednesday, continuing a diplomatic trip through Europe. In a speech, Obama laid out a proposal for the United States and Russia to reduce the numbers of nuclear warheads they have deployed. He also addressed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s questions about the recently revealed surveillance programs at the National Security Agency:

The NSA revelations resonate among Germans, given their Cold War history. Merkel, raised in East Germany where the Stasi secret police spied intensively on residents, has expressed anger over the program and told reporters on Wednesday that she raised her concerns in her meeting with Obama.

“Although we do see the need to gather information, we also see the need for proportionality,” Merkel said. “This is why an equitable balance needs to be struck. There needs to be proportionality. This is going to be an ongoing dialogue.”

Obama acknowledged concern about the data-gathering program, known as PRISM, and in answering a question directed to Merkel, said he had sought to assure the German chancellor that the data-collecting was not infringing on the rights of German citizens. Obama said U.S. intelligence officials would begin working with their German counterparts to make sure they know the nature of the data being gathered.

“What I explained to Chancellor Merkel is that I came into office committed to protecting the American people but also committed to our highest values and ideals, including privacy and civil liberties,” Obama said. “I’m confident at this point that we have struck the appropriate balance.”

Scott Wilson

Watch a portion of the president’s speech below:

Speaking at Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate, President Obama called for a one-third reduction of the world's nuclear stockpiles. (Associated Press/The Washington Post)

Earlier this week, leaders of the Group of Eight countries, including Obama and Merkel, met in Northern Ireland. The violence in Syria posed a difficult problem for the group:

Leaders of the Group of Eight nations called Tuesday for a negotiated resolution to the worsening conflict in Syria, but in a concession to Russia, they did not declare that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must resign.

The compromise was an effort to promote a process aimed at ending a civil war that the United Nations estimates has taken at least 93,000 lives, while avoiding the central point of disagreement that separates Russia from the United States and most European powers. . .

As the two-day summit in this resort town concluded, the question of how to end Syria’s war emerged as the most vivid example of the divide between the United States and Russia, a potential key partner or chief obstacle in several of the most pressing national security issues.

The differences between the United States, which wants Assad out, and Russia, the Syrian leader’s chief weapons supplier, were clear Monday after a two-hour meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two bluntly declared that their disagreement about Syria’s future, in particular whether Assad remains viable as a leader, could not be bridged during the summit.

Obama recently decided to directly arm Syria’s rebel forces, turning the conflict into a proxy war, with the United States and its European and Arab allies on one side and Russia and Iran on the other.

The debate defined the G-8 leaders’ dinner Monday, and administration officials said negotiators then worked until 2:30 a.m. to come up with a statement on Syria acceptable to the United States and to Russia. The result, which effectively skirts the question of Assad’s future, was reached Tuesday morning during the leaders’ first meeting of the day.

Scott Wilson

The awkwardness between Obama and Putin was visible in photos from a joint news conference on Monday. Obama’s policy on Syria, as well as his reliance on drone warfare and new information about the NSA, have damaged his reputation in Europe:

“People in Europe were looking for a political redeemer,” said Jan Techau, the director of the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Those expectations, of course, were greatly exaggerated. Soon it became clear, as it is now, that he is simply an American president with all of the ugly power politics that the position involves.”

Nowhere has Obama been as popular as he once was in Europe, a collection of traditional U.S. allies viewed by the George W. Bush administration as more hindrance than help on the security challenges of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world. . .

Obama. . . once counted on his popular luster abroad to help drive his policy ambitions. But that shine has dimmed in Europe because of what analysts say is a perception of tepid leadership and a troubling counterterrorism approach that recalls the excesses of the previous administration.

Scott Wilson

For past coverage of Obama’s trip to Europe, continue reading here.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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