Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Poutin' Over Putin?

Communication.

It's what international diplomacy requires.

And late-night comedy shows are a form of communication, right?

Fresh off his appearance on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno last night, President Barak Obama decided today that, nope, he isn't going to meet privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin after all.  The two had been scheduled to kibbutz during the G20 economic talks taking place in St. Petersburg this September.  Obama's still going to St. Pete's for the economic talks; but he also wants to snub Putin.

No talk for you.

Tit for tat, so we're told, mostly because Putin didn't put his foot down and say accused traitor Edward Snowden couldn't have asylum in Russia for a year.  So, as we speak, Snowden is probably shopping Moscow's trendiest luxury boutiques for the latest in comfy winter gear.

Regardless of what you think about Snowden, or the secrets he's told the world about our government's efforts to spy on just about everybody inhabiting our planet, is the fact that Russia has given temporary asylum to this guy really such a horrible international power play?  If it wasn't Russia, it was going to be one of the banana republics in South America, and who has more to lose from Snowden's loose lips:  Russia, or Venezuela?

It's like the Cold War all over again, with Russia as desperate to keep the lid from blowing off things as we were.  The trick was acting like we weren't.

Maybe having coffee and sharing a private conversation between interpreters doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of life, but in the world of political diplomacy, it's apparently a pretty big deal.  It was then, and it remains so today.  But not only has Obama been petty, he's sending more than weak political signals.  By cancelling the coffee, Obama has instantly elevated Snowden's profile, and exponentially elevated Snowden's credibility.  Now the politicians and bureaucrats who've been trying to pussyfoot around the Snowden scandal by saying he was just a naive contractor who doesn't know what he's talking about can't say that anymore.  The President has just pulled the rug out from under their denials.

Last night on Leno, Obama not only complained about the Russians and their asylum for Snowden, but he also decided to bash Russia for its gay-bashing.  Officially, homosexuality has been legal ever since the Soviet Union's collapse, but two recent laws in Russia designed to repress public expressions of the lifestyle have received widespread public support.  Obama obviously is hoping to earn bonus points from America's gay lobby by coming out in strong opposition to Russia's legislation, but if he's genuinely alarmed, don't you think he'd want to tell Putin personally?

Complaining to Jay Leno isn't the same thing, is it?

Even if you're the President's most ardent admirer, you have to admit, the guy is really, really bad at foreign policy.  He insulted Britain, our most important ally, by supporting Argentina in its long-running grousing over the Falkland Islands.  His expansion of the Bush-era military drones policy, and balking over what the Arab Spring meant, has irked and confused Muslims.  Osama bin Laden was killed during his watch, but Benghazi now looms over his administration as dark as any mushroom cloud.  And it's being reported not just in the right-wing press, but Obama's usually supportive friends at CNN and Huffington Post.

When it comes to cover-ups and clandestine operations, which are the accusations trickling out of the Libya fiasco, you'd think Obama has been talking to Putin privately all along, getting advice from the former KGB operative for how to intimidate witnesses and suppress evidence.  Maybe that's why he doesn't need to meet with him in September?

If we give Obama the benefit of the doubt, we could hypothesize that, as he's likely scrambling to get his suitcases packed for his family vacation in Martha's Vinyard, he let a novice policy wonk bend his ear on saying nyet to personal talks with Putin.  Or maybe, considering the storm that may be brewing over Benghazi, the President is trying to toss out some red herrings to get the international media sidetracked.  Maybe he's genuinely, personally insulted that Putin didn't kick Snowden out of Russia, even after we promised that we wouldn't execute Snowden - if he was found guilty, of course.  But in the end, all of these possibilities simply reveal a disappointingly ineffectual, unsophisticated, and myopic leader.

That's why what Obama likely wanted to be interpreted as a subtle rebuke against Russia is turning into a global rebuke of his own foreign policy aptitude.

He could have kept his mouth shut, and when he sat down with Putin in September, simply not talked about Snowden.  He could have talked instead about the laws Russia is making that criminalize a certain behavior for an entire class of people, not just one person.  Even if you believe homosexuality to be immoral, as I do, it's also immoral to criminalize certain types of immorality simply because they doesn't fit within your ideals for sexuality.  There are better ways of reaching out to people with whom you disagree, aren't there?

Like, oh... talking?

Oh, yeah... can't do that, 'cause we're trying to make a point about somebody who's alerted the world to our massive, unconstitutional spy program.

Of course, it's not like all dialog between the United States and Russia has ground to a halt.  Diplomatic communication hardly ever ceases, and can even, according to our current administration, include nighttime talk shows on network television.

Historically, it's been hard to make a Russian leader look virtuous in comparison to an American one.  Putin may still be a thorn in America's side, but it's a misguided American politician who tries to push the thorn in even further.
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Uh-oh:  the Financial Times ponders if the Obama administration's snub is giving Russia even more reason to get chummier with China...


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