It doesn’t look good when the most powerful man in the world can’t get his hands on one of the most wanted men in the world.
Edward Snowden, the confessed National Security Agency leaker, has eluded U.S. authorities since early June, even as President Obama’s administration pleaded with officials in China and Russia to send the fugitive back to America.
The traditional rivals of the U.S. have even seemed to enjoy the Obama administration’s distress. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Mr. Snowden “a free man” Tuesday, confirming that Mr. Snowden had been at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport since Sunday. He explicitly refused to comply with the U.S. request to turn over Mr. Snowden, noting that the two countries don’t have an extradition treaty.
The episode is making the U.S. look weak in the eyes of Russia and China, said Leon Aron, a foreign policy analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
“From the point of view of the Russians and the Chinese, definitely,” Mr. Aron said. “In their systems, legitimacy comes from being treated with fear and respect. And clearly, they’re choosing not to treat the United States that way.”
Asked what options the Obama administration has with Russia, Mr. Aron said simply, “None. Russia is in no hurry.”
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Mr. Snowden’s next move was uncertain Tuesday evening. His supporters said earlier that he would be on a flight Monday from Moscow to Havana, but that turned out not to be the case.
After leaking information about top-secret U.S. surveillance and data-mining programs to The Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper, Mr. Snowden outed himself to the world while staying at a hotel in Hong Kong, a special administrative section of China, over which Beijing exercises sovereignty and controls foreign policy.
Mr. Obama’s foreign policy is based on a “pivot” toward Asia and a “reset” of U.S. relations with Russia, but the failure of China and Russia to cooperate on Mr. Snowden underscores the limits of the president’s power. Beijing and Moscow gave their refusals within weeks of Mr. Obama’s one-on-one talks separately with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr. Putin on other matters.
James Lewis, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Obama administration has lost face on the global stage.
“It’s really embarrassing,” Mr. Lewis said. “There’s got to be some effect on U.S. reputation. Here’s NSA, one of the premier intelligence agencies, and a high school dropout is able to remove this stuff on a thumb drive. And then there’s a larger political agenda that [Russia] will take advantage of.”
The Obama administration has been relegated to expressing its frustration with China and assuring Moscow that it doesn’t want a confrontation, and it has had to endure barbs from other foreign governments as well.
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China’s top state newspaper praised Mr. Snowden for “tearing off Washington’s sanctimonious mask” and ridiculed the U.S. for hypocrisy when it comes to personal freedoms.
“The United States has gone from a ‘model of human rights’ to ‘an eavesdropper on personal privacy,’ the ‘manipulator’ of the centralised power over the international Internet, and the mad ‘invader’ of other countries’ networks,” the People’s Daily said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Beijing’s refusal to either arrest Mr. Snowden or keep him in Hong Kong has damaged U.S.-Chinese relations. He accused Beijing of a deliberate lack of cooperation.
“The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust,” he said. “We think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, then there is a problem.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Tuesday that Mr. Putin is correct about the lack of an extradition treaty, but it is common international custom for nations to turn over foreign fugitives to their home countries to face charges there.
“I would simply appeal for calm and reasonableness,” Mr. Kerry said during a visit to Saudi Arabia. “We would hope that Russia would not side with someone who is a fugitive from justice.”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a frequent critic of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, said the Snowden case was the latest in a series of incidents that show growing U.S. weakness abroad.
“For nearly five years now, we have sent a signal to the world that we’re leading from behind, that we are impotent, that we don’t act when we say that we’re going to,” Mr. McCain said Tuesday on CNBC.
He called Mr. Putin “an old KGB colonel apparatchik” who “continues to stick his thumb in our eye.”
Mr. Snowden’s visits to China and Russia also raise the risk that he might divulge other classified secrets about U.S. surveillance programs to those governments. Mr. Putin said the Russian government had not debriefed the former CIA employee.
Russia’s special security services “are not engaged with him and will not be engaged,” Mr. Putin said.
Andrei Soldatov, a Moscow-based specialist on Russia’s special services who runs the website Agentura.ru, said he doubted that Mr. Snowden was being asked to cooperate. “The Snowden case is much more important for politicians than it is for foreign intelligence services,” he told the Financial Times.
Mr. Aron said the U.S. has bigger problems with Russia, such as its support for Syria and Iran, and that the Snowden case isn’t likely to cause lasting harm compared with those international hot spots.
He also said the Obama administration doesn’t want to jeopardize the president’s goal of nuclear arms reduction, which he outlined in a speech in Germany last week.
“It appears that this administration’s almost sole focus with regard to Russia is the next nuclear-arms reduction agreement,” Mr. Aron said. “This is a paramount, overriding objective of this administration, and it would overlook a great deal to get to that point.”