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Obama on the offense

Gero Schließ, Washington / cbAugust 10, 2013

US President Barack Obama covered plans to make the country's surveillance programs more transparent and also touched on recalibrating the United States' difficult relationship with Russia.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a news conference at the White House in Washington, August 9, 2013. Obama sought on Friday to boost Americans' confidence in sweeping government spying programs revealed by a series of leaks, saying he would work with the U.S. Congress to reform key parts of the anti-terror Patriot Act. REUTERS/Jason Reed
Image: Reuters

It wasn't an easy outing for US President Barak Obama. Recently, he has almost seemed trapped by ongoing domestic and foreign policy conflicts. Shortly before leaving for his summer vacation, the president apparently wanted to go back on offense. For a White House press conference on Friday (09.08.2013), he chose two highly contentious topics of significant importance not only to the United States, but to Germany and other allies as well.

Paradoxical Snowden situation

One topic was the National Security Agency's (NSA) extensive surveillance programs, which are heatedly discussed in Europe and beginning to worry more and more Americans. The other issue was the tense relationship with Russia. The rapport between the two countries seems to have reached a new low, after Obama cancelled a bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin planned for September in Moscow.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden plays a part in both issues Obama focused on in the press conference. The former NSA contractor put the US into the difficult position it is in now by revealing the NSA's extensive surveillance programs to the press. And after fleeing the United States, he was granted asylum in Russia for a year - which was one of the reasons Obama cancelled the summit with Putin.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confer during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington before a day of talks August 9, 2013. U.S. and Russian officials will seek to maintain a working relationship when they meet in Washington on Friday even though the political mood between the two countries has hit one of its lowest points since the end of the Cold War. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
Russia's and the US's foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry at their Washington meetingImage: Reuters

Obama briefly talked about Snowden at the press conference, saying "I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot." The president admitted for the first time, however, that the NSA measures he announced recently would not have come about as quickly as they did without Snowden.

"We're starting to get ourselves into a very paradoxical situation," Cory Welt, associate director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, told DW. "Snowden is wanted on justifiably criminal charges, at the same time that we're having an administration which is acknowledging that his actions may have spurred a policy review."

More surveillance control to win back trust

With his announcement of more transparency and control concerning the NSA, and the introduction of an independent expert commission, Obama apparently wants to win back Americans' trust. According to recent polls, more than half of Americans do not trust him and suspect that the data gathered is not only used to fight terrorism.

Mark Jacobsen from the German Marshall Fund said the president is addressing the worries of Americans and allies alike about the extent of the surveillance programs by saying there would be increased oversight but not promising to end the surveillance programs themselves.

"What the president is trying to address are both the concerns of the US public and our allies abroad," Jacobsen told DW. "I didn't hear anything that would decrease or scale back US intelligence programs."

But even with Obama announcing a "new era" for intelligence services at the press conference on Friday, Jacobsen said he is wary of a misunderstanding. Labeling the president's statements as distancing would be a mistake.

While Obama's Democratic Party signaled that it would go along with the new course, Republican Majority Speaker John Boehner accused the president of insufficient support for the US surveillance program.

FIEL - A general view of the headquarters of the National Security Administration (NSA) in Fort Meade, Maryland, USA, 07 June 2013. According to media reports, a secret intelligence program called 'Prism' run by the US Government's National Security Agency has been collecting data from millions of communication service subscribers through access to many of the top US Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple and Verizon. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO dpa (zu dpa "«Spiegel»: US-Geheimdienst späht EU aus " vom 29.06.2013) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
There are changes on the horizon for the NSAImage: picture-alliance/dpa

American-Russian relationship is experiencing new ice age

Both parties, however, backed the president's policy toward Russia. Obama said there would be a silent period between the two nations for now. "It is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going, what our core interests are and calibrate the relationship," the president said during his press conference.

Even though Obama claimed he had a good relationship with Putin, it became clear that the president was frustrated and impatient in the face of unresolved conflicts ranging from Syria to Iran.

"His remarks almost suggested that there was a certain inevitability to his cancellation" of the summit, Welt said. "But he did also hint at the fact that there is an agenda that both countries are interested in working on."

According to Welt, it was a promising sign that the meeting between the two countries' foreign and defense secretaries in Washington still took place two days after Obama's cancellation.

"I'm sure the Russians might have been tempted to cancel," Welt said. "And the body language of these ministers suggested that this was a very tense meeting."

ITAR-TASS: MOSCOW, RUSSIA. AUGUST 1, 2013. A person with Russian passports in hands in front of a computer screen showing the US passport of CIA leaker Edward Snowden behind. Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia. (Photo ITAR-TASS / Anton Novoderezhkin)
The reason for disagreements between Russia and the US: Snowden's asylum in RussiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

No Olympic boycott

The meeting still sent the same signal as Obama's press conference: The Americans want to constructively work with the Russians despite all the differences and not let the relationship disintegrate. The president's refusal to boycott the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, as Congress has suggested, fits into this picture as well.

The Washington Post called cancelling the Moscow trip a tactical decision. But in the long run, the relationship could only work with a lot of input from the highest levels, according to the newspaper. The Post also said that the US government needed a clear message concerning human rights and democracy, especially in the light of recent attacks against homosexuals.