The Age of American Impotence
As the Edward Snowden saga illustrates, the Obama administration is running out of foreign influence.
Bret Stephens, WSJ Opinion, June 24, 2013
At this writing, Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive National Security Agency contractor indicted on espionage charges, is in Moscow, where Vladimir Putin's spokesman insists his government is powerless to detain him. "We have nothing to do with this story," says Dmitri Peskov. "I don't approve or disapprove plane tickets."
Funny how Mr. Putin always seems to discover his inner civil libertarian when it's an opportunity to humiliate the United States. When the Russian government wants someone off Russian soil, it either removes him from it or puts him under it. Just ask investor Bill Browder, who was declared persona non grata when he tried to land in Moscow in November 2005. Or think of Mr. Browder's lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, murdered by Russian prison officials four years later.
Mr. Snowden arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong, where local officials refused a U.S. arrest request, supposedly on grounds it "did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law." That's funny, too, since Mr. Snowden had been staying in a Chinese government safe house before Beijing gave the order to ignore the U.S. request and let him go.
"The Hong Kong government didn't have much of a role," Albert Ho, a Hong Kong legislator, told Reuters. "Its role was to receive instructions to not stop him at the airport."
Now Mr. Snowden may be on his way to Havana, or Caracas, or Quito. It's been said often enough that this so-called transparency crusader remains free thanks to the cheek and indulgence of dictatorships and strongmen. It's also been said that his case illustrates how little has been achieved by President Obama's "reset" with Moscow, or with his California schmoozing of China's Xi Jinping earlier this month.
But however the Snowden episode turns out (and don't be surprised if the Russians wind up handing him over in exchange for an unspecified American favor), what it mainly illustrates is that we are living in an age of American impotence. The Obama administration has decided it wants out from nettlesome foreign entanglements, and now finds itself surprised that it's running out of foreign influence.
That is the larger significance of last week's Afghan diplomatic debacle, in which the Taliban opened an office in Doha for the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan"—the name Mullah Omar grandiloquently gave his regime in Kabul before its 2001 downfall. Afghan President Hamid Karzai responded by shutting down negotiations with the U.S. over post-2014 security cooperation.
Now the U.S. finds itself in an amazing position. Merely to get the Taliban to the table for a bogus peace process, the administration agreed at Pakistan's urging to let Mullah Omar come to the table on his owns terms: no acceptance of the Afghan Constitution, no cease-fire with international forces, not even a formal pledge to never again allow Afghanistan to become a haven for international terrorism. The U.S. also agreed, according to Pakistani sources, to allow the terrorist Haqqani network—whose exploits include the 2011 siege of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul—a seat at the table.
Yet having legitimized Haqqani and given the Taliban everything it wanted in exchange for nothing, the U.S. finds itself being dumped by its own client government in Kabul, which can always turn to Iran as a substitute patron. Incredible: no peace, no peace process, no ally, no leverage and no moral standing, all in a single stroke. John Kerry is off to quite a start.
What's happening in Afghanistan is of a piece with the larger pattern of U.S. diplomacy. Iraq? The administration made the complete withdrawal of our troops a cornerstone of its first-term foreign policy, and now finds itself surprised that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki won't lift a finger to prevent Iranian cargo planes from overflying his airspace en route to resupplying Bashar Assad's military. Syria? President Obama spent two years giving the country's civil war the widest berth, creating the power vacuum in which Iran, Hezbollah and Russia may soon achieve their strategic goals.
And Iran: In 2003, Tehran briefly halted its secret nuclear-weapons work and agreed to suspend its enrichment activities, at least for a few months. Yet since then, every U.S. effort to persuade Iran to alter its nuclear course has failed. Is it because the Obama administration was insufficiently solicitous, patient, or eager for a deal? Or is it that Tehran believes that treating this administration with contempt carries little cost?
"America can't do a damn thing against us" was a maxim of the Iranian revolution in its early days when America meant Jimmy Carter. Under President Obama, the new maxim could well be "America won't do a damn thing."
Which brings us back to the Snowden file. Speaking from India, Mr. Kerry offered a view on what it would mean for Russia to allow him to flee. "Disappointing," said our 68th secretary of state. He added "there would be without any question some effect and impact on the relationship and consequences."
Moscow must be trembling.