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The Snowden Unforced Error


Hot on the heels of jihadists around the world snickering at the hasty mass closing of US embassies around the Middle East, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post points out that the right wing Chinese Global Times is clucking at the spectacle of President Obama backing out of a summit with Putin over the Snowden affair:

Russia has impressed the world, which views the Kremlin as the “winner” and the White House as the “loser.”

This judgment is correct. In the Snowden case, all the other countries involved have become winners while the US is the sole loser. Washington put on a show of bravado, but failed to extradite Snowden in the end. By contrast, Moscow displayed its national characteristics of decisiveness and boldness and kept Washington at bay.

As we said yesterday, canceling the summit was not a mistake, but making Snowden the cause definitely was. As The New Republic‘s Julia Ioffe pointed out in a profanity-ridden rant (which would’ve been much more effective translated into calm analysis), the outcome of the Snowden affair is at best and most charitably an unforced error by the Obama administration:

You can’t back Putin into a corner and leave him no options. If you are a world leader worth your salt, and have a good diplomatic team working for you, you would know that. You would also know that when dealing with thugs like Putin…things like this are better handled quietly. Here’s the thing: Putin responds to shows of strength, but only if he has room to maneuver. You can’t publicly shame him into doing something, it’s not going to get a good response.

Ouch. The Obama administration’s reputation for foreign policy  competence sure is taking a beating in the press these days…

[Edward Snowden photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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  • Thirdsyphon

    Obama’s decision to cancel the summit is being sloppily reported (by the MSM whose gaffes you’re usually so quick to point out) as if it was purely a reaction to the Snowden affair, when in truth Snowden was just the final straw. According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, the summit was actually cancelled because of “a ‘lack of progress’ with Russia on a broad range of issues including missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, and human rights issues.”

    All of which happens to be true. It’s no surprise that the Chinese version of Fox News is applauding Russia’s conduct on those issues. . .as far as they’re concerned, Vladimir Putin’s position on these issues is spot-on. In fact, the Global Times is in favor of pretty much anything that looks like a confrontation with the United States.

    • f1b0nacc1

      I understand your point here, but the timing is absolutely awful on the part of the Obama administration. Whether or not this is about more than just Snowdon (and while I agree with you that it is about far more than just one leaker, it is equally clear that the administration is in full meltdown over this), the timing makes it clear that Putin found a new way to pull Obama’s appendage (pick your choice of which one) and get the reaction that he wanted.
      If this was a serious issue with Russia’s (appalling) behavior, there were lots of ways to punish Putin that might have had some impact. What happened here instead was a typical ‘send a message’ gesture that has no real effect, especially with a leader like Putin who controls his internal press with an iron fist.

      • Thirdsyphon

        Ha! It’s true, Putin *does* seem to have an uncanny aptitude for getting under President Obama’s skin. . .and to the extent that was Putin’s real goal in this affair, he’s clearly succeeded.

        It’s always interesting to see which foreign leaders are able to provoke this type of response from specific Presidents. Hugo Chavez had a similar effect on Bush 43, and I vaguely remember a similar dynamic unfolding between Bush 41 and Manuel Noriega, and between Ronald Reagan and Khadafi. The fact that Putin is the leader of a much, much more significant power than any of those other figures were suggests that Obama has, for once, been unlucky in his enemies.

        Another surprise in all of this (in all the last 6 years, really) has been Obama’s unexpected -almost Nixonian- obsession with government secrecy. That it’s Vladimir Putin, of all people, who’s been able to successfully needle him on this subject is a great irony.

        But Obama isn’t *completely* ineffectual in his response. While Putin might not care about a diplomatic snub, he probably *does* care quite a lot about developments like this one:

        After all of Putin’s efforts to secure Saudi Arabia’s agreement not to undermine Russian gas prices in the European market, he can’t be glad to learn that the Administration is now suddenly moving forward to facilitate the export of American LNG. Apparently Obama’s only green until someone makes him see red.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Putin is no doubt not too happy about shale gas showing up on the world market, but I suspect that he long ago wrote that one off as inevitable. Whatever else one might say about Putin, he doesn’t strike me as stupid (stupid men end up dead in his line of work, so they tend to avoid it in the first place), so I imagine that he wrote off any realistic chance of stopping American shale gas long ago.
          Your insight into various American leader’s and their obsession with certain foreign leaders (Castro and the Kennedys come immediately to mind) is an excellent one, and quite apt in this case. Putin has a real gift for pulling Obama’s chain…just goes to show that nobody is all bad!

    • Andrew Allison

      I have a really good deal on a bridge in Brooklyn for you.

  • Beauceron

    “According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney…”
    Yeah, Thirdsyphon, he’s always been honest, hasn’t he?
    The supposed “lack of progress” on all of these issues is not something that occurred last week. That has been months, in fact years, in the making. And that didn’t stop the Obama administration from setting up/agreeing to the summit.
    You’ve confused the smoke for the actual object– which, as Mead and pretty much everyone else has pointed out, is Russia’s refusal to hand over Snowden.

    • Thirdsyphon

      As I said, I think Snowden was the last straw, but all those other problems we have with Russia are very real, and were presumably what we wanted to talk to him about. But the Snowden episode proves that all Putin is actually interested in is performing clownish antics for the benefit of his domestic audience and America-haters everywhere. Well, so be it. Russia’s a free country (if you’re Putin) and he can do what he likes; but going forward he’ll need to find some other way to stay relevant.

  • Fat_Man

    “Beware the Curse of Asylum in Russia: The fate of ex-CIA agent Edward Lee Howard may contain a cautionary tale for Edward Snowden.” by Robert Stone on August 7, 2013

    “I want to offer the cautionary tale of another American I once knew. This man also ran afoul of the U.S. intelligence apparatus and, accused of espionage, took refuge in Russia in what was then the Soviet Union. After he was no longer useful to his hosts, he died mysteriously.”

    “Edward Lee Howard was the only former CIA employee ever to seek asylum in Moscow. I met him in 1993, almost a decade after his defection. I then found him a publisher for his 1995 memoir, ‘Safe House.'”

    “In 2002, the Russian news agency TASS reported that Ed had died in a drunken fall—and with a broken neck, another source said—at his KGB-owned dacha in the woods outside Moscow.”

    • Andrew Allison

      Completely irrelevant to the discussion.

      • Thirdsyphon

        If you believe that, I have an utterly relevant bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

        • Andrew Allison

          Please explain the relevance of a comment on the dangers of asylum in Russia to a discussion of why Obama cancelled his trip.

  • Corlyss

    “The Obama administration’s reputation for foreign policy competence”
    Many of us never believed it had any. It screamed weakness from the moment Obama began sniffing around a run at the presidency and started posing himself as the anti-Bush.

    • bpuharic

      Perhaps if he started a useless, expensive and deadly war, the right would have more respect for him.

  • Pete

    Whether there is or is not a ‘summit’ with Putin, who really cares?

  • stevewfromford

    So even the New Republic thinks Obama is a fool? “IF you are a world leader worth your salt”…..

  • bpuharic

    Let’s see…the MSM is liberal, socialist and pro Obama…except when it isn’t. The right likes to have it both ways, I guess

  • ljgude

    I heard Journalism prof Jeff Jarvis (Calls himself a Clinton Democrat) say after a disclaimer about not liking conspiracy theories that his feeling is that the whole embassy closing thing might be a smokescreen to cover the NSA Snowdon embarrassment. He made me realize that I am not taking the whole thing at face value either. My best guess is that Obama is doing something unfathomable again because he is operating in a completely different reality than I am. Aa far as I’m concerned anybody who tries to make friends with the Muslim Brotherhood which gave birth to al Qaeda while ‘decimating’ al Qaeda with drones and bragging about it is freebasing self delusion. But that’s smart diplomacy for you – just no sense in trying to figure out what the O is up to.

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