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Analysis: The scandal over NSA leaker Edward Snowden reveals a steady decline of America’s prestige and power in the world.
BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — President Barack Obama just can’t get no respect these days. The steady stream of revelations about US government snooping is eroding what little star power he still commands five years into his presidency.
First, he had to endure severe embarrassment at the G8 wealthy nations summit in Northern Ireland, when US government security whistleblower Edward Snowden told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that the National Security Agency (NSA) and its sister organization, Britain’s GCHQ, had a habit of spying on world leaders at these types of gatherings.
Snowden spilled the beans about the G20 in London in 2009, when US and UK intelligence tapped into delegates’ BlackBerrys, set up fake internet cafes and generally attempted to improve their leaders’ bargaining positions by spying on their supposed partners.
Then a mere 5,000 people showed up for Obama’s “historic” speech on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, where had had wowed enormous crowds back in 2008. But back then he was a silver-tongued candidate full of promise rather than a world leader beset with problems.
Snowden may have had a hand in this, as well; some have speculated that the much more restrained reception accorded Obama this time around was due to German outrage over the NSA surveillance scandal, which conjured up uncomfortable echoes of the East German Stasi.
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Now he is faced with open defiance from big power frenemies China and Russia, who appear to be taking great delight in keeping Snowden out of Washington’s clutches.
Snowden, who had holed up in Hong Kong after leaving Hawaii laden with state secrets, is on a global sprint to find asylum in any country that will take him. Hong Kong let him leave in spite of US entreaties, saying that Washington’s requests “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law,” a charge that US officials strenuously deny.
Now, for the moment, Snowden is believed to be at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, in his own version of Tom Hanks in “The Terminal.” He has no Russian visa, so he cannot enter the city, but as yet he has no firm destination where he is sure of a welcome.
Consequences? What consequences?
Washington is railing against what it sees as the treachery of its partners and allies, and is threatening “consequences” for the lack of cooperation.
Judging by the reaction, no one on Snowden’s escape route is losing any sleep.
China has pulled out all the stops on its anti-Washington rhetoric. The government-run People’s Daily lauded Snowden for “tearing off Washington’s sanctimonious mask,” adding that the United States had “gone from a 'model of human rights' to 'an eavesdropper on personal privacy,' the 'manipulator' of the centralized power over the international internet, and the mad 'invader' of other countries' networks."
Beijing rejected Washington’s allegations that it had acted improperly with regard to Snowden, and dismissed any concern that the affair would have a negative impact on Sino-American relations. In fact, according to People’s Daily, it could actually spur the two countries to deal with their mutual suspicions about cyber security.
“For the China-US relations, both Beijing and Washington fully know that an isolated case should not be allowed to hurt one of the most critical relationships in the world,” the paper wrote. “[T]he Snowden case might not be a completely bad thing after all. Beijing and Washington can actually use the case to facilitate ongoing efforts to deal with the issue [of cyber security]. The two sides can sit down and talk through their mutual suspicions.”
Washington is refusing to see the bright side, however. Secretary of State John Kerry took time out from a busy trip to India to excoriate the young leaker.
“People may die as a consequence of what this man did,” Kerry told CNN’s Elise Labott. “It is possible the United States will be attacked because terrorists may now know how to protect themselves in some way or another, that they didn't know before."
“Shearing the piglet”
Obama is having little more success with Moscow. His meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Northern Ireland was a triumph of negative optics, with both men slumped in their chairs and staring anywhere but at each other. Putin even chided the US president for trying to lighten the mood with a mild joke about his declining basketball game.
“The president is trying to get me to let my guard down by saying he is getting weaker,” Putin said, in Russian.
The two clashed about many issues, including the conflict in Syria, and Putin is not budging an inch on Snowden.
The American fugitive is in the transit hall, where he “can buy a ticket and go wherever he likes,” the Russian president told reporters in Moscow. Furthermore, “As far as handing him over to anybody, we can only hand over foreign citizens to countries with which we have the appropriate agreements … we do not have such an agreement with the United States.”
Putin was not convinced that Russia should take any action at all on Snowden.
“Just ask yourself — should we hand over people like this so they can be put in prison?” he said. “I’d rather not get involved. It’s like shearing a piglet — there’s a lot of squealing but you don’t get much wool.”
Next stop, Quito?
Snowden has been charged with espionage, and is in fear for his life if he were to be returned to the United States. In a letter to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa he pleaded for asylum:
“It is unlikely that I would receive a fair trial or proper treatment prior to that trial, and face the possibility of life in prison or even death,” he wrote.
Ecuador, which last year granted asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, seems to be sympathetic to Snowden’s plight. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters in Hanoi that Snowden was a “man who is trying to shine a light and show transparency over acts that have affected the fundamental liberty of all people.”
In deciding whether or not to grant asylum, Ecuador would act based on principles “enshrined in its constitution and the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which “will be placed by Ecuador’s government over other interests that may be planted or by pressures that might be exerted.”
Ecuador has a lucrative trade agreement with the United States that could very well be in jeopardy if Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa refuses to play ball on Snowden.
But Correa seems to be more concerned with keeping his membership in Latin America’s anti-Washington presidents’ club. He joins Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Evo Morales in Bolivia and the new successors of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in publicly flaunting his disregard for Washington’s good opinion.
It is far from clear whether Snowden will end up in Quito; he has also mentioned Iceland as a possible destination. There has as yet been no word from Reykjavik on the issue, although WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told reporters that he had approached the Icelandic government over the issue. WikiLeaks says it has been helping Snowden with his travel plans.
For now, Snowden’s moral standing is no clearer than his geographical boundaries. He has been branded as a traitor by some, a hero by others.
But Obama’s position is not much simpler. A White House petition continues to gather signatures — by late Tuesday close to 120,000 people had put their names to the document, which demands that Obama pardon the NSA whistleblower.
If Snowden is in no man’s land, he just may have brought the US president there with him.