Obama's mistakes on Snowden have already cost us

Reuters

US President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about the National Security Agency's secret collection of telephone records from millions of Americans during a visit to San Jose, California June 7, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • The Obama Administration saw retrieving Snowden as a legal issue rather than a matter of political willpower

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  • Both Russia and China act as though they have nothing to fear from the United States

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  • Our adversaries see Obama yet again as a man of near infinite flexibility on foreign and defense policy issues

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President Obama’s ongoing mishandling of Edward Snowden’s defection highlights key failings in his dangerously flawed approach to defending U.S. national security. Whatever Snowden’s ultimate fate, Obama’s mistakes have already cost America dearly during his first term in office, and will undoubtedly cost us more in his second. Our adversaries have carefully assessed Obama, and will continue taking advantage of his weakness and incompetence. Consider some lessons we have learned from the Snowden affair:

1. The Obama Administration saw retrieving Snowden as a legal issue rather than a matter of political willpower. Last week, the Washington Post reported the obvious: “for the first 12 days, the Obama administration’s effort [to extradite Snowden]…. was a by-the-book legal affair — overseen by the Justice Department and involving few if any diplomatic overtures.” Surprisingly for the liberal Post, its reporters concluded “that legalistic approach has resulted in a political and public relations debacle.”

Indeed. Countries with bilateral extradition treaties often use judicial proceedings as an efficient, non-controversial way to resolve such issues. But for every country, entry and exit are fundamental matters of sovereignty, ultimately determined by executive authorities. These are the officials in Beijing, Hong Kong and Moscow where Obama should have concentrated his efforts, with a clear, forceful message: we want Snowden and we want him now.

Moreover, Obama’s penchant for legalism is dangerously embodied in his approach to international terrorism. He has never accepted the reality of a “global war on terror,” and works continuously to convince Americans the war is almost over. Obama views terrorism as a law-enforcement problem, the failed paradigm of the 1990’s which led tragically to al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks.

Law is a powerful governance instrument, but its appropriateness and effectiveness are not unlimited. Especially in international affairs, where law’s force and effect are at their weakest, relying on legal techniques rather than political strength is a prescription for trouble.

2. Obama’s “lead-from-behind” style fails once again. Obama left the hard work of getting Snowden back to his bureaucrats. Neither he nor his Secretary of State apparently bothered to call their counterparts or engage in vigorous diplomacy. On June 27, Obama admitted his passivity, saying “Number one, I shouldn’t have to. Number two, …I’m not going to have one case of a suspect who we’re trying to extradite suddenly being elevated to the point where I’ve got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading [with China and Russia] on a whole host of other issues.”

Leaving aside his jaw-dropping personal arrogance, Obama’s answer shows that even after four-and-one-half years in office, he still doesn’t understand international politics. A diplomatic message’s seriousness is reflected both by its wording and by the level of the person conveying it. If Russia, China and others believe the President doesn’t think Snowden’s return is serious enough to engage himself personally, they will assume Washington is just going through the motions. Obama’s performance, therefore, is not merely an incompetent misuse of his authority, but proof that his on-the-job training hasn’t worked.

3. Obama doesn’t grasp the instruments available to him as President. Obama also said disdainfully that “I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.” Of course, military force has never been an option here, but Obama’s disinclination to act decisively is unfortunately far broader. Even though everyone else in his Administration, including his press spokesman, declared retrieving Snowden to be a very high American priority, Obama seems not to care.

Not surprisingly, therefore, both Russia and China act as though they have nothing to fear from the United States. There need to be consequences for Beijing and Moscow, not only to demonstrate that we took Snowden’s defection seriously, but also because friends and adversaries alike are all carefully observing how Obama performs on this issue, reaching their judgments about how he will act in the next crisis.

And yet, as far as we know Obama has imposed no consequences. For China, which has already allowed Snowden to escape, Obama should, for example, recall our Ambassador from Beijing and our Consul General from Hong Kong, and put day-to-day bilateral diplomacy on ice. More dramatically, Obama should also permanently lift all U.S. travel restrictions on officials of the Taiwanese government (officially known as the “Republic of China”), and lift all restrictions on Taiwanese diplomats in the United States, including permitting meetings with U.S. officials in the State Department building. Beijing will be extremely unhappy with these changes, which is exactly the reaction we want for their failure to cooperate with us over Snowden.

4. Obama either doesn’t fully understand the potential damage caused by Snowden’s treachery, or he is doing crassly political damage-control spin. Labeling Snowden a “hacker” is certainly disparaging, but also seems designed to downplay the national-security damage Snowden has inflicted. By low-keying the implications, Obama is also trying to minimize his own failure to retrieve Snowden, as he did after the September 11, 2012 murders of our Ambassador and three others in Benghazi. This is, therefore, either political spin or a fundamental failure to understand what every other responsible U.S. official has said about the gravity of the information China and Russia may have obtained. Conceivably, therefore, this may be the very worst of Obama’s mistakes, enduring evidence that his years in office have simply taught him nothing about the importance of maintaining America’s national security.

We do not yet know how the Snowden affair will end, but we have seen enough already of Obama’s mishandling of the defection to understand yet again how weak and incompetent a President he is. Worse, our adversaries see Obama yet again as a man of near infinite flexibility on foreign and defense policy issues, especially now that the 2012 election is safely behind him. By now, even Jimmy Carter looks good in comparison.

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