Commentary Magazine


Don’t Boycott Olympics Over Snowden

The continuing scandal of Edward Snowden’s flight to China and then Russia (and possibly elsewhere more permanently) has been a diplomatic setback for the Obama administration. But it has not been wholly without its minor diplomatic victories. A phone call from Vice President Biden to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa apparently convinced the latter not to accept Snowden. And a request from President Obama apparently convinced our European allies to ground the Bolivian president’s plane out of suspicion Snowden was on board.

Snowden hasn’t been extradited, but his options are disappearing and his fate is now in the hands of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. And the president did read one aspect of the issue correctly: countries have reveled in rejecting the American president publicly, and so Obama has declined to play too high-profile a role lest he give Vladimir Putin and the others an additional public-relations victory. There was no reason to add (more) insult to injury–but that’s exactly what GOP Senator Lindsey Graham would have the administration do. Graham said the U.S. should consider boycotting the 2014 Olympics to be held in the Russian city of Sochi if Snowden isn’t extradited to the U.S. His comments have now drawn condemnation from both sides of the isle, as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee:

“If there are any lessons to be learned from the American boycott of 1980, it is that Olympic boycotts do not work,” U.S. Olympic Committee spokesperson Patrick Sandusky said in a statement. “Our boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games did not contribute to a successful resolution of the underlying conflict. It did, however, deprive hundreds of American athletes, all whom had completely dedicated themselves to representing our nation at the Olympic Games, of the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Graham said the United States should send Russia “the most unequivocal signal I could send them” after Snowden on Tuesday formally requested asylum after spending almost a month in the transit zone of the Moscow airport. Snowden has been charged with espionage for leaking details about two NSA programs that collected information about U.S. telephone calls and international Internet usage.

Alexey Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker, dismissed Graham’s remarks as an effort to go back to Cold War times of “mutual boycotts when our two countries looked at each other through, figuratively speaking, nuclear sight.” And President Vladimir Putin said U.S.-Russian ties were “far more important” than the Snowden dispute.

Olympic athletes train and prepare their entire lives for the chance to participate in an event that comes along once every four years. A boycott means there would be eight years between American participation in a winter Olympics. The average age of a winter Olympian is usually around 27 years old, making that eight-year gap a career-ender for many. That doesn’t mean a boycott is never an acceptable act, but the offense has to fit the outrage.

Does it in this case? Not remotely. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about it at a press briefing and said it’s not even on the administration’s radar. The administration likely knows that the boycott threat would probably have the opposite of the intended effect. Most of the countries’ teams would shed no tears over the thought of not having to compete with American athletes, and they would probably view Putin as something of a hero for getting the Americans to back out of the competition, leveling the playing field in certain sports.

It would also make the U.S. look petty: we didn’t boycott the Olympics in China in 2008, after all, but now that we feel personally insulted we’re going to stay home? We should be careful about the precedent, too. An un-extradited fugitive is a low bar for countries to clear if they’re looking for an excuse to make a fuss.

So what’s happening here? It’s most likely an overreaction born of frustration. But unlike during the Cold War, the mistake to be avoided is taking such Russian provocations too seriously. Putin is presiding over a country in various stages of decline, and he would love nothing more than to be treated as though he is more of a threat than he is. That’s not to say he’s harmless–Russian assistance to Iran’s nuclear program and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, as well as invading U.S. allies are but a few of the ways Putin can and does cause real harm.

But it’s those actions that call for pushback, not the administration’s failed “reset,” a policy that quickly became a punch line. If there is information the FSB can get from Snowden, they’ve probably got it already. He’s been living in the transit zone of the airport for about a month, after all. Obama’s policies toward Russia have been disastrous and weak, but conservatives need to offer a more serious alternative than boycotting the Olympics over Snowden. It’s a good sign that Graham seems to be alone in his proposal.

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