President Obama is watching from afar as the Edward Snowden drama plays itself out. And even though he says the Snowden case is important to national security, Obama and his administration have been unable to bring Snowden to justice and have resorted to private diplomatic pressure that hasn't yet paid off. All this represents an embarrassing illustration of the limits of presidential power.
Obama and his advisers have failed to persuade China or Russia to return Snowden for trial on charges that he broke U.S. law by leaking classified information on American surveillance programs. As a result, the president runs the risk of looking weak and amateurish on the world stage as he also struggles to regain his influence back home.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said China's failure to cooperate will "unquestionably" harm the U.S.-China relationship. Carney told reporters that Snowden is a fugitive from American justice and the Obama administration rejects the claim by China that Hong Kong, where Snowden initially fled, had no legal basis to expel Snowden.
The 30-year-old former government contractor moved quickly from Hong Kong to Moscow, where the administration of President Vladimir Putin has also declined to return him to the United States despite demands and entreaties from Washington. Snowden is still believed to be in Moscow, but his whereabouts are unclear.
Snowden may be attempting to move eventually to Ecuador, which also has a difficult relationship with the United States.
On Monday, President Obama reacted cautiously. "We're following all of the appropriate legal channels, and working with various other countries to make sure that rule of law is observed," he told reporters.
Obama's critics say a big part of the problem is that he fails to inspire fear in his adversaries. "Nobody's saying there are any real consequences that would come from crossing him, and that's an awful position for the president of the United States to be in," Eliot Cohen, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, told The Washington Post.
This same story line of futility emerged last week when Obama experienced setbacks at a meeting of the G8 industrialized powers in Northern Ireland. Putin rebuffed Obama on the question of aid to Syria, with Putin holding to his position in support for the government of President Bashar al-Assad and Obama backing the anti-government rebels.
Moscow also expressed deep skepticism about Obama's call for further reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. And leaders of other nations at the G8 were concerned about the scope of U.S surveillance of their citizens, which Snowden revealed.
Back home, Obama has been struggling with various issues, including his failure to win congressional approval for gun-control measures and a major budget deal, and a scandal involving Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Overall, Obama's job-approval ratings remain relatively weak and his credibility is suffering.
- White House to Moscow: Send Snowden to U.S.
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- Snowden Runs: Where Can Americans Avoid Extradition?
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.