America must give up its Snowden distraction
Philip Bowring says America's zealous pursuit of the whistle-blower will only further alienate Russia, a potential ally in forging a resolution over Syria and peace in the Middle East
The Snowden affair has been bizarre, at times comic, yet it carries with it a potentially dangerous link. That danger lies not in what Edward Snowden has revealed, most of which is broad-brush accounts of the extent of electronic surveillance, but in its link to a much more dangerous issue, Syria. The connection is through Moscow.
Maybe no one can now stop the sectarian violence engulfing Syria and Iraq from spreading to their neighbours, but if anyone can, it is the US and Russia, by calling their own regional truce.
The US has been mishandling the Snowden affair by its criticism of Hong Kong, China and Russia for their failure to arrest him. Surely the US should have welcomed his sudden flight from Hong Kong, possibly to a small and remote country. He could rot there for years and get almost no media attention. Indeed, his now mentor Julian Assange was fading into the background before he found this new cause in a clearly clueless Snowden.
Snowden's sudden exit from Hong Kong made a nonsense of his previous protestations that he chose the city because of its liberal traditions and the independence of its judiciary. Here, he could state his case to the world, claiming he had only revealed activities that were in themselves illegal in the US as well as in jurisdictions targeted by surveillance. But, no, this self-proclaimed tribune fled before the threat that he might be put in jail while his case was being heard.
In reality, it is very likely that Hong Kong courts would have granted him bail due to the nature of the charges and favourable local public sentiment. Ultimately, if legal avenues failed, he could have applied for refugee status. But he did not have the guts to take the course he himself had chosen.
The strong US reaction to his non-arrest may be deemed necessary for domestic political purposes. President Barack Obama's desire to appear tough has seen a surge in drone warfare and crackdowns against supposed security leaks at home. But a US that conducted foreign policy driven by foreign rather than domestic political realities would recognise that concern about surveillance, and about the excesses committed under the Patriot Act, are rampant in friendly democratic countries in Europe and Asia.
For sure, most people trust the US, unlike China, not to use surveillance to crack down on dissent, and recognise that it has some role to play in anti-terrorism activities. But it is equally obvious that serious terrorists no longer communicate via Google, Skype and mobile phones, and no amount of electronic spying will prevent one-off attacks like the recent one in Boston.
Snowden has brought needed attention to excesses of surveillance, the amateurish way in which vast quantities of information is processed, and the unhealthy links between billion-dollar surveillance budgets, National Security Agency and CIA employees, and the government's "private" contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton. The harder the US pursues Snowden, the more suspicions of US motives will grow. It will also be assumed that the US is as guilty as China of stealing technology as well as state secrets.
Which brings us to the question: why pick a fight with Moscow over Snowden when the situation over Syria is so finely balanced? It is not as though Vladimir Putin, the ruthless former spymaster, would sympathise with Snowden. But already, as seen at the recent G8 summit, relations were at a low ebb. The US announcement of arms support for Syrian rebels has so far done nothing to weaken Russian support for President Bashar al-Assad. Its chances of doing so are not strengthened by a petty row over Snowden.
Indeed, grandstanding by US Secretary of State John Kerry on Snowden adds to concerns that he wants deeper US engagement in Syria than Obama is willing to accept. The pressure for more engagement in Syria is growing in Washington, not least from pro-Israel voices. Public opinion remains cautious but the Snowden affair could change that.
It is not as though either the US or Russia really want to see the likely outcome of an extension of the Syrian conflict - the division of Syria, the extension of Salafism in the Sunni world, increased Sunni/Shia conflict and so on. But they are in danger of reaping unintended consequences of the kind that led the US to back the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and so give birth to the Taliban, to back Iraq's war against Iran, prior to ousting Saddam Hussein, which then led to a surge in sectarian divisions.
The row over Snowden could also overshadow badly needed efforts to try to engage the new government in Iran. Major changes in policy may be beyond President Hassan Rowhani's remit from the supreme leader, but absent ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's outrageous rhetoric, and given the mood among Iranians to end isolation, some progress should be possible.
With courage in Washington and flexibility in Moscow, it may be possible to bring Iran to support a transition in Syria. A grand bargain involving Iran's nuclear programme and economic sanctions, as well as Syria, is possible.
If only Obama had the vision to go to Tehran, as Richard Nixon went to Beijing under Mao Zedong . Instead, we witness a US temper tantrum.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator