President Obama says he will not scramble jets to intercept the fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden. If only he would take a gutsy lesson from Ronald Reagan.
On Sunday, when Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow, Rare reminded the world how President Reagan dealt with airborne fugitives after the Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985. Dutch sent up F-14s and forced the aircraft carrying the terrorists to land in Italy to face justice. We suggested that perhaps Mr. Obama could use a similar method to intercept Edward Snowden on his flight into exile. At the very least the threat of such an intercept could keep countries that might assist Snowden guessing.
However, on Thursday Mr. Obama removed that option from the table. “”No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” he said. He expressed annoyance that he would be called upon to do anything at all.
Mr. Obama sneers at the intercept option as though it is beneath him. In fact it is simply too gutsy a call. Some used that expression to describe his eventual decision to order the takedown of Osama bin Laden. But that call wasn’t very gutsy. If the bin Laden raid had failed it would have remained a secret and no one would have been the wiser. Likewise killing terrorists by remote control with drones carries next to no risk, and the National Security Staff insulates Mr. Obama from almost every aspect of those operations. Everything about the Obama national security style says low risk, low effort, and unfortunately low reward. He leads from behind, on the occasions when he leads at all.
Mr. Obama also made a mistake in describing Snowden as a “29 year old hacker.” He was attempting to demean the leaker, but the rest of his administration is trying to make the case that Snowden engaged in significant acts of espionage and did irreparable harm to U.S. national security. So which Snowden is he, the master thief or the irrelevant punk? Mr. Obama’s self-serving characterization of Snowden has prejudiced the government’s case, in much the way the commander in chief recently complicated prosecuting military sexual assault cases with more political grandstanding. Words have consequences.
Publicly taking the interception off the table confirms to adversary leaders what they have long suspected; Mr. Obama is not someone they need to fear. Machiavelli said that it is better for a statesman to be feared than loved, because fear is enduring while love is fickle. Fear translates into respect, but love, once lost, leaves a residue of contempt. Mr. Obama’s evident disdain at the suggestion he needs to be involved in resolving this crisis in any way tells every country involved in aiding Snowden’s flight to exile, you win.
It would be useful at some point for the United States to restore its reputation as a country that can get things done. A superpower occasionally needs to remind the world why it carries that title. Studied ambiguity over the use of force can be a useful signal, and carry a serious and meaningful message. After the Achille Lauro hijackers were in custody, a reporter asked President Reagan whether he would have ordered U.S. Navy jets to fire on the unarmed aircraft if the pilot had refused to fly to Italy. “That’s for [the terrorists] to go to bed every night wondering,” the Gipper replied. But no one has to wonder about Barack Obama. They know everything they need to know.
James S. Robbins is Deputy Editor of Rare and author of Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity. Follow him on Twitter @James_Robbins