Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to grant asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden leaves President Obama looking weak. Putin meant it that way. His political base likes him thumbing his nose at the American president and he took a gamble that Obama would not retaliate over a freelance spy.
It might be argued that this is just another Russian mosquito bite, an embarrassing irritation but not a major incident. It makes little difference where Snowden lives under what amounts to house arrest. In Russia, civil rights will be almost as severely curtailed as if he were locked up here. Like the WikiLeaks leaker Julian Assange, self-exiled to one room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Snowden is going nowhere and is no longer free to do his worst. The Russians have already accessed his most damaging information, as did the Chinese before they sent him packing. Even the Guardian, the most ardent conduit of his erudite revelations, must have a data dump to keep it occupied for years.
That does not mean the president should do nothing. Harboring Snowden comes on top of a number of other offensive Russian actions that suggest Obama should draw one of his famous lines in the sand. Most egregiously, Putin has continued to bolster the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, the tyrant of Syria who has used Russian military hardware to kill 100,000 of his own people. Russia not only continues to provide heavy arms, missiles, and aircraft parts that allow Syria to continue bombing civilians in rebel-held cities, it repeatedly vetoes U.N. efforts to broker a peace deal.
The former KGB agent Putin has not met a dictator he doesn’t like. He encourages the mullahs who run Iran to defy American-led efforts to halt its nuclear weapons program. The Iranians in turn back Syria. When NATO intervened to prevent the slaughter of Libyan civilians by Muammar Gaddafi, Putin complained they were over-reaching and condemned the popular uprising against the terrorist leader. When North Korea’s erratic despot Kim Jong-un set off a nuclear explosion earlier this year to tweak Obama’s nose, the Russian scientists were quick to suggest that blasting radiation into the atmosphere was not harmful. To test Obama’s resolve, Russian aircraft have penetrated American airspace over Guam and its submarines have spent weeks exploring the Gulf of Mexico. A NATO plan to arm Poland to counter missile attacks from Iran has been met with threats from Putin that he will attack Poland, just like Stalin and Hitler before him.
Elected to a great extent in response to the revulsion against the unnecessary war in Iraq, Obama has so far met Putin’s saber rattling with sweet reason. He now runs the risk, however, of appearing vacillating in the face of what his close ally Senator Chuck Schumer calls Putin’s “twist of the knife.” That perception reinforces his evident impotence in domestic affairs. Unable to push legislation through Congress, the president is left touring the nation listing at length what House Republicans won’t let him do. To garnish his own reputation, he needs to stand up to the Russian bully. But how?