Forget “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” The hottest real-time game in the world is: Where in the world is Edward Snowden? The rogue NSA techie—who, in the judgment of the NSA’s head, Gen. Keith Alexander, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”—has fled Hong Kong and wound up in Moscow. He was rumored to be heading to Ecuador via Havana but he didn’t make the Aeroflot flight he was expected to take, leaving a pack of journalists who bought tickets to photograph an empty seat. So presumably Snowden remains in Russia at least for the time being, with rumors swirling that Ecuador or possibly Venezuela remain his destination of choice.
No matter what he’s up to, he’s making the United States government look foolish. Hong Kong’s decision—which, in effect, means Beijing’s decision—to let him leave even though he is wanted on felony charges in the United States and had his passport suspended suggests that notwithstanding the positive atmospherics from the recent summit meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping, there remain sharp limits on how far the Communist regime is willing to go to accommodate American concerns. Indeed, Beijing seems to be positively reveling in Snowden’s unfortunate revelations about the NSA’s penetration of Chinese computer networks, which serves to deflect attention from the much more massive intrusions into computer networks both foreign and domestic that Beijing routinely undertakes. Vladimir Putin, for his part, doesn’t seem to have heard of any “reset” in relations with the U.S. He, too, appears happy to grant Snowden sanctuary, at least for a short while, as a way of giving Uncle Sam the middle finger.
Then we come to Ecuador, whose president, Rafael Correa, appears to be bidding for leadership of the anti-American bloc in Latin America—a position left open by Fidel Castro’s enfeeblement and Hugo Chavez’s death. He has already granted refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy to WikiLeaks founder and accused rapist Julian Assange. Now he may very well try to grant sanctuary to Snowden too. He is entitled to do that, but Washington should make clear to him that if he does so he will suffer the consequences—including a loss of trade privileges that could threaten the $10.7 billion worth of goods that nation exports to the U.S. every year.
This is all, it must be said, a colossal embarrassment for President Obama. He looks, to unsympathetic eyes at least, to be a budding tyrant (witness all of the absurd and overheated comparisons between the NSA’s measured and carefully controlled activities and those of authoritarian states such as China and Iran which spy on their own people to suppress dissent)—and a notably ineffectual one at that who can’t even snare one Pepsi-swilling, pizza-gobbling computer geek.
It may well be that case that a Republican president—John McCain or Mitt Romney—would have had no more success in apprehending Snowden, but the equanimity with which other states rebuff our appeals for his apprehension makes clear that the U.S. is suffering a significant loss of respect. Quite simply, the U.S. is no more universally loved than it was prior to Obama’s ascension—and now we are less respected too. As anyone who consults Machiavelli will know, this is not a recipe for a prince’s success.