Russia’s grant of temporary asylum to former contractor Edward Snowden against U.S. wishes unleashed calls from members of both parties for President Barack Obama to take a harder line against his counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Republican senators including John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina yesterday called the decision “a slap in the face of all Americans.” They urged more limits on U.S. entry and banking access for Russian officials and for the Obama administration to alter missile-defense policy to stop accommodating Russian concerns.
“Any time our president is seen to be disrespected, it’s not good,” Graham said in an interview. “Our foreign policy is not working. This is an example of it not working.”
Russia’s move, made without warning the U.S. beforehand, left White House officials assessing the domestic political damage as well as its impact on ties with Putin’s government. Some political analysts said Obama is in a no-win situation. If Snowden is not returned to the U.S., the president risks looking weak. If he’s extradited back home, it would make Obama’s domestic surveillance program a bigger issue in next year’s mid-term elections.
Even a Democrat, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, prodded the U.S. president to push for a new host country for next month’s Group of 20 summit that Obama is set to attend in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“Russia has stabbed us in the back, and each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife,” Schumer said.
Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, said Snowden’s exposure of secret U.S. telephone and Internet surveillance programs ensured a debate over national security and privacy in next year’s elections regardless of whether Russia granted asylum.
If Russia had returned Snowden to the U.S., “it would still be controversial, wouldn’t it?” Rothenberg said.
“He would be a hero to some people,” Rothenberg said of Snowden. “Some people would say, ‘It’s not about him; it’s about the government’s policies.’ I think either way the issue would be churning.”
In any case, Snowden is unlikely to be a dominant election issue so much as part of the mix with the economy, health care and other issues, Rothenberg said.
“You’re going to now have Republicans say this demonstrates how Obama’s foreign policy has failed and the U.S. can be easily ignored,” he said. “They couldn’t do that if the Russians returned him. But either way, it was going to be controversial. Either way, we’re still going to be talking about Snowden 14 months from now.”
Following hours of silence as Obama’s advisers sought to gather facts and formulate a response, White House press secretary Jay Carney said at a midday briefing that the U.S. is “extremely disappointed” with Russia’s decision and is “evaluating the utility” of a bilateral summit between Obama and Putin that was to have taken place next month in Moscow.
The White House is not seeking a last-minute change of venue for the G-20 summit and Obama expects to take part in the St. Petersburg meeting, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified discussing the matter.
Obama, addressing reporters later in the Oval Office at the end of a meeting with the president of Yemen, declined to respond to shouted questions about his reaction to Russia’s decision.
“Thank you everybody, thank you everybody, thank you everybody,” Obama said. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
U.S. lawmakers blasted Russia’s handling of Snowden and said Putin’s administration should be held accountable. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, called on Obama to “engage” the Russian leader in a way that is “satisfactory to the American people.”
Carney defended Obama’s policy of “reset” toward Russia, which has been aimed at softening longstanding tensions between the countries in order to yield cooperation on international issues.
Even as Russia has continued to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and, now, has granted Snowden temporary asylum, Carney said the shift in relations has translated to “positive benefits for American national security and for the American people.” Those include supply routes for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and a new START treaty for reducing the two nations’ nuclear arsenals.
“Our relationship with Russia, as is the case with other important countries around the world, is based in realism,” Carney said.
Snowden, 30, who faces espionage charges in the U.S., received a document yesterday from the Russian Migration Service that allowed him to leave Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow and travel freely in Russia for the next 12 months. The temporary asylum was granted after repeated U.S. calls for Snowden to be returned to the U.S. for prosecution.
The former National Security Agency contract worker had been holed up in the airport since arriving from Hong Kong June 23. He left in a taxi for a “safe location” that won’t be disclosed, said Anatoly Kucherena, his Moscow-based lawyer.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said he hopes Obama doesn’t cancel a bilateral meeting with Putin next month or boycott the G-20 summit because “publicly and privately we should make our case” about Snowden.
While Putin has shown an appetite for playing “spoiler” to U.S. foreign policy, Haass said that if Snowden had been returned, “there would have people in the far left or far right who would have been unhappy with any trial or time in prison if he were convicted. There’s also the risk he would not be convicted.”
What’s not clear yet, Haass said, is what the Russians will do with Snowden in the long term. The former employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. (BAH) had sought asylum in more than two dozen countries, with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia expressing willingness to take him in.
“This is a way to get him out of the duty-free shop but still open to question is how long this lasts,” Haass said. “The U.S. could give Russia some assurances about process and charges and the rest, where Putin could say, ’I now believe that asylum in Russia is no longer warranted.’ I don’t think this is the end of it.”