Founded by Drew Pearson 1932
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON – President Obama canceled a planned summit in Moscow with Russian President Putin, citing Putin’s rejection of administration entreaties to return NSA leaker Edward Snowden to the U.S. to face trial. Obama’s frustration with Putin’s intransigence on a number of issues, from nuclear arms reduction to the abrupt halting of adoptions by Americans of Russian children, set the stage for the snub. Obama no doubt felt he had taken enough guff from the Russian president; now was the time to return the volley.
Granting Snowden temporary asylum was the proximate cause, but a small part of the much larger story of the deteriorating U.S.-Russian relationship. It gave Obama an excuse to skip the side trip to Moscow after he attends next month’s G-20 summit in St. Petersburg that Putin is hosting. Given the long and rocky history between the two superpowers, it’s not surprising Obama made the decision he did, but did he really think the Russians would return Snowden?
In foreign policy – as in all human interactions – you’ve got to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Snowden initially fled to Hong Kong, where the Chinese essentially punted, declining to send him back to the U.S. and letting him travel on to Moscow. Putin was confronted with a guy confined to the transit lounge of the Moscow airport who was meeting with human rights activists and allegedly still in possession of a treasure trove of U.S. intelligence secrets.
What if the situation were reversed, and a Russian citizen was holed up at JFK airport in New York, his passport revoked by Russian authorities, and he had inside information about the Kremlin; would the administration send him back to Russia to face an uncertain fate? The answer is no, the administration would put out the welcome mat for such an individual. They’d call him or her a defector, and grant asylum.
The same would be true if an individual allegedly in possession of secrets about China managed to reach the U.S. – he or she would get asylum in a New York minute.
The Russians are doing exactly what any U.S. administration would do, allow this high-profile defector or dissident to find safe harbor, and then milk it for every bit of drama and public relations advantage they can find. Sure, it’s annoying to Obama, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. And it shouldn’t be blamed for the breakdown in the U.S-Russian relationship. That was fraying well before Snowden landed in Moscow.
There’s a great deal of theater on both sides of the divide. Putin has a trophy in Snowden that he can show off to the Russian people, and Obama gets a rare chance to look tough while putting nothing at risk. It’s like that iconic scene from “Casablanca” where the chief of police is “shocked, shocked” to find gambling in Rick’s Café.
If Putin did agree to extradite Snowden, what kind of signal would that send? How would that be interpreted? Obama would be delighted, of course, and praise Putin for his cooperation. But what would Putin get out of the deal? He would forfeit any future opportunities to receive defectors and/or dissidents from the U.S. Anybody contemplating such a move would see Putin as an unreliable confidante, and Russia as hostile territory – not the message Putin wants to send in a world of shifting alliances.
The thing to watch now is what Russia does with Snowden now that he’s there for at least a year. The Russian equivalent of Facebook reportedly offered him a job. Let’s see how much freedom Snowden gets to enjoy, whether the world at large hears from him again, and then we can better judge Putin’s actions, and whether they depart from the norm – or are the norm.
© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND