Is Snowden Pivotal to U.S.-Russian Relations?
Edward Snowden, thanks to his lawyer and Vladimir Putin, has a one-year renewable grant of asylum and has left his safe haven at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Aiport. For now, he is safe at some unidentified location and, within limits, free. Such is life in Russia. It's also quickly becoming life in America, as Snowden demonstrated to us all.
Envoys from Russian intelligence services and internal affairs undoubtedly have made it clear to Snowden that if he stays, he talks only to them about America's espionage apparatus. He will be the guy every Russian media type wants to interview, but at least for now the Russian government will keep Snowden muzzled or confined to tightly controlled public statements to express his gratitude to the Russian government and people. Although Putin no doubt enjoyed sticking it to Barack Obama in this little face-off, he won't want to prolong the spat further. But perhaps the U.S. government doesn't share that point of view.
From Putin's perspective, the U.S. has behaved unreasonably about Snowden in general and especially toward those who would offer him asylum. The U.S. government must have known in short order that Snowden was not Russia's agent. Furthermore, the only reason Snowden was in Moscow at all was because the Chinese, who surely copied whatever information Snowden carried, did not want to be further involved in the controversy with the U.S. and certainly didn't want the hacker in their territory. They were eager to unload Snowden, and they did so quickly, passing the hot potato to Moscow. I rather doubt that they called Putin for his okay before doing so.
As for Russia, its president and intelligence officials would hardly have been fazed to learn the extent of U.S. spying, but they would have found it shocking that such a low-level worker in the heart of U.S. Eavesdropping Central had unfettered access to such information -- and worse, that there were no effective means to prevent theft of same. Had Putin been in Obama's shoes, he would have cut his losses, figured out a way to dispatch the villain, and said nothing at all publicly. Why draw attention to a major embarrassment? By contrast, the U.S. government and Congress have been beside themselves with fury, unleashing threats and warnings at every turn. Instead of relying on first-class diplomacy, our government has taken its blunders and its constitutional violations into the public domain like some cheap reality show.
Once Snowden was in Russia, Putin was in a tight spot. Russia has no extradition treaty with the U.S. and Snowden was by no means the clear-cut criminal the Americans insisted he was. By the time Snowden arrived, he was already an international figure, a hero to many around the world and in the United States. Russians sympathized with him, too, and Putin made it clear early on that Russia would not send him home. Even if Russia has in the past cooperated with the U.S. on extradition deals informally, it has been on cases involving the repatriation of alleged criminals, not political dissidents -- and Snowden is a political dissident from a nation, our own, where the executive branch becomes every day a greater threat to the country's constitutional foundation.
There is no reason to believe that Russia is interested in fighting a protracted battle with the U.S. over this. Snowden is settled for the next year, and if Russia feels like it, it can give him a disguise, papers, and transport to some other country eager to shaft the U.S. Or maybe Snowden will settle down in some quiet and anonymous corner of Russia and fade into oblivion. But for Russia, it is simply impractical to make asylum for Snowden the be-all and the end-all of U.S.-Russian relations. There are a whole range of issues on which the two countries should be cooperating, and Russia is ready to do so.
But it's not clear if the U.S. shares that view. For some of our leading lights, from both parties, it is more important to vent our anger and take revenge than to take care of business. The hotheads who rule our esteemed Senate -- and I do mean John McCain and Lindsey Graham in first order -- want to punish the Russians for not doing U.S. bidding. Graham said the granting of asylum is a "game-changer" that calls for a "firm response." Why it is a game-changer he does not share with us. And John McCain, never short of a bellicose solution to any problem, proposes more U.S.-led efforts to beat up on Russia for its human rights record and violations of civil liberties, none of which were especially important to our government until it didn't get its way on something it really wanted.
McCain, one of the leaders of the neo-interventionist wing of the Republican Party, also suggests that the U.S. increase activity inside Russia to that stir up trouble for Putin. That, dear reader, is called intervention in the internal affairs of another country, and it violates yet another of the foundational principles, this one on international relations, that America seems determined to undermine or destroy. McCain also wants to speed up European missile-defense programs and draw every country that touches Russian borders into the militarily aggressive and Russia-phobic North Atlantic Treaty Organization. What McCain is really looking for is a face-off with Russia that will allow his testosterone level to spike.
Russia offers a controversial figure asylum from political persecution in the U.S., and high-profile U.S. officials threaten to imperil basic Russian security. They even chased down the plane of an elected president from Latin America hoping to kidnap Snowden. Who do you think look like the good guys to ordinary people watching this show around the globe, and whom do they see as the bullies?
We have been publicly rejected and humiliated, and we have lost the ability to lose with grace, so we make of ourselves even greater fools. The U.S. as a nation has lost sight of all the things that made America a beacon -- things like economic prosperity and civil liberties and sound government, and above all basic decency at home and abroad. Today, our rulers rely only on raw power to secure this nation's interests, vital or otherwise.