Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium -- the title of a 1969 romantic comedy -- could now fit two intertwined phenomena: the madcap global travels of Secretary of State John Kerry and the nonstop journey of the latest revelations from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. In mid-August, there was Kerry in Brazil, lamely defending the NSA's surveillance program, even as he tried to pacify local ire over reports that the agency was monitoring phone calls and emails on a mass scale there. (And this was before the news even broke that the NSA had hacked into President Dilma Rousseff's emails and spied on Brazil's major oil company.) "We're not surprised and we're not upset that Brazil would ask questions. Absolutely understandable," Kerry said at the time. "Brazil is owed answers with respect to those questions and they will get them. And we will work together very positively to make certain that this question -- these issues -- do not get in the way of all the other things that we talked about." As it happened, no answers were forthcoming. A month later, Rousseff would cancel a long-planned visit to Washington and denounce the NSA's spying at the U.N.
Skip two months to late October, and there Kerry was again, this time in France trying to pacify an angry ally over another revelation of a massive NSA eavesdropping operation. ("We will have ongoing bilateral consultations, including with our French partners, to address this question of any reports by the U.S. government gathering information from some of the agencies and those consultations are going to continue.") Meanwhile, he was still trying to defend that agency's basic program in similarly foggy language. ("Protecting the security of our citizens in today's world is a very complicated, very challenging task... because there are lots of people out there seeking to do harm to other people.")
And then, in a no-rest-for-the-weary world, on he went to Italy, whose population had just been outed as the latest victim of NSA spying, and whose foreign minister was demanding "clarity" on the issue. With much of Europe up in arms over America's expanding global security state, he once again resorted to his rope-a-dope technique, taking the local punches while offering public pabulum about our dearest allies and how much the Obama administration cares for them and how Americans nonetheless have to be protected from the evil doers, etc., etc. Only as October ended, two and a half months after his Brazilian trip, did the secretary of state become the first Obama administration official to admit that "in some cases, some of these actions have reached too far."
By now, Kerry's act had all the charm of a clown fireman putting out a blaze at a circus only to set himself on fire. If this repetitive scene, in which the Snowden revelations stay just ahead of the eternally globetrotting secretary of state, doesn't quite add up to a real life version of Batman and Robin, the dynamic duo, it still has to be the spectacle of 2013. Given the recent Guardian report that the NSA has listened in on at least 35 heads of state (and that's only phone calls, not emails), Kerry could be an even busier man in the months to come. As Peter Van Buren, former State Department whistleblower, points out in his latest piece, "Ramblin' Man," Kerry's already legendary global travels are matched by a legendary cluelessness that reflects a particularly twenty-first-century Washington state of mind.