from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Edward Snowden and Presidential Power

Snowden on news monitor in China

June 25, 2013

Snowden on news monitor in China
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

This morning on CBS News, Rep. Paul Ryan discussed the Obama administration’s efforts to compel Russia to extradite Edward Snowden, former contract employee for the National Security Agency (NSA), to face three felony charges in the United States. When asked specifically “What would you have done, that the administration has not done?” he did not answer. When pressed, “What would you recommend the president do?” Ryan replied: “I don’t want to knee-jerk here, but we have extradition treaties, we have relationships, and we should use those relationships.” Ryan then noted that the failure of the United States to have Snowden extradited, “Doesn’t speak very well to how we are being viewed in the world, doesn’t speak to our credibility…that does not help our image whatsoever.”

Ryan’s assertion is reflective of many policymakers and pundits, who’s political party is not the White House. Whenever a president cannot achieve a foreign policy objective, it is characterized as purported evidence of American “weakness,” or lack of “respect,” which can be reversed with sufficient presidential “leadership.” However, when asked for what specific policies the president should pursue, they either reiterate what the administration is already doing—as Ryan did this morning—or imply that a few more Oval Office phone calls can force other foreign leaders to suddenly abandon their own national interests and do what the United States requests.

In today’s Washington Post, former Bush administration adviser Elliot Cohen stated of Obama: “Nobody’s afraid of this guy. Nobody’s saying there are any real consequences that would come from crossing him — and that’s an awful position for the president of the United States to be in.” What is missing is what exactly Obama should do to make Vladimir Putin afraid, or what those consequences should be. Similarly, former senior Bush aide Peter Wehner wrote yesterday that “an irresolute amateur like Barack Obama was the best thing that the brutal but determined Putin could have hoped for.”

Finally, in today’s Wall Street Journal Brett Stephens wrote: “However the Snowden episode turns out…what it mainly illustrates is that we are living in an age of American impotence.” As evidence for this absence of U.S. virility, Stephens cites the withdrawal from Iraq, draw-down from Afghanistan, “giving [Syria’s] civil war the widest berth,” and ongoing questions about Iran’s nuclear program, which stretch back more than a decade. Somehow, deeper U.S. military involvement in some or all of these quagmires would have scared Moscow into submission.

Presidents have never been able to direct other foreign leaders to do what they want—a fact George W. Bush learned over the eleven days of quiet diplomacy that was required to secure the U.S. servicemembers and EP-3E Aries I spy plane that crash-landed on Hainan Island, China, in April 2001. It was reported at the time: “A senior U.S. official said the impasse was broken when the Bush administration agreed to insert ‘very’ before ‘sorry’,” in a letter to the Chinese Foreign Minister. Those sorts of painstaking negotiations—requiring judgment and the flexibility to provide political coverage for other leaders to make tough decisions—reflect how crisis diplomacy is actually conducted. Whether, or how, Russia and the United States resolve the dispute over Edward Snowden (if he is in fact there) will not be a result of Putin’s perception of Obama’s toughness, or America’s war-making efforts around the world.

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