It was bright and sunny in Washington on Saturday as President Obama stepped out of the White House in flip-flops and khaki shorts to hit the golf course with his buddies.
At the same time, officials throughout his administration were scrambling to keep one of America’s most-wanted fugitives from evading extradition in Hong Kong.
The juxtaposition illustrates the hands-off approach Obama has taken — in public, at least — to the government’s efforts to bring Edward Snowden, the 30-year-old former contractor who exposed classified details of U.S. surveillance programs, back to the United States to face charges of revealing government secrets.
Conservatives say Obama’s posture in the case provides further evidence of a commander in chief whose credibility abroad has declined and who shrinks from presidential leadership at moments of international crisis, including in response to last fall’s attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
“Nobody’s afraid of this guy,” said former George W. Bush administration adviser Eliot A. Cohen, who argues that Obama should have personally stood up to Chinese and Russian officials. “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.”
But some foreign policy experts were more sympathetic to the administration, saying that inserting Obama directly into the negotiations would be folly. It is embarrassing enough that Snowden is on the run, they said; the president’s personal involvement would only further risk the United States’ credibility abroad.
Administration officials have not detailed any actions that Obama has personally taken to bring Snowden to justice, saying only that he has set the administration’s strategic direction and has been briefed regularly by his national security staff.
Unlike other crises, the White House has not distributed any photographs of Obama and his advisers monitoring Snowden’s movements in the Situation Room or calling foreign leaders from the Oval Office. All known communications between U.S. officials and authorities in Hong Kong, China and Russia have been made by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and other underlings, although a senior administration official said Obama could become personally involved at some point.
Obama’s first brief public comments on Snowden came Monday during an event focused on immigration. The remarks came nearly 40 hours after Snowden had set off on his global odyssey, jetting first to Moscow with the possibility of seeking asylum in Ecuador by way of Cuba.
“We are following the appropriate legal channels and working with various countries to make sure that all the rules are followed,” Obama told reporters in response to a question Monday afternoon. “Beyond that, I will refer you to the Justice Department, which has been actively involved in this issue.”
If Obama spoke out more forcefully, he would endanger the United States’ standing unless he was prepared to retaliate against countries that refuse to detain Snowden, said Anthony H. Cordesman, a former State Department and Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I think it would be totally inappropriate for the president to put American prestige on the line to make threats,” Cordesman said. “You have to handle it at lower levels. . . . You have to find much quieter ways of communicating to Russia and China.”
Snowden’s globe-trotting comes at a sensitive time for Obama’s relationships with his counterparts in both China and Russia.
And last week at the G-8 Summit in Northern Ireland, Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin sat stiffly side by side and failed to resolve their substantial differences over bringing about an end to the worsening civil war in Syria.
When reporters asked Monday whether Obama had called either Xi or Putin to personally ask that they detain Snowden and extradite him to the United States, White House press secretary Jay Carney demurred.
“I have no presidential communications to read out to you,” Carney said repeatedly. He added, “There is no reason why, given international law, given the relationships that we have with the countries in question, that this would require a communication from the president.”
Obama’s critics argue that Obama has lost influence internationally. Cohen — a top foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney, Obama’s 2012 Republican opponent — said Snowden’s escape was “a humiliation” for the president.
“The Russians repeatedly have stuck a finger in our eye — over Iran, over Syria, over this,” Cohen said. Obama, he added, “doesn’t react in a way that causes them to think, ‘My gosh, we’ve paid a price for taking this attitude.’ ”
Former ambassador Richard S. Williamson, another top Romney adviser, said the unwillingness so far of international authorities to extradite Snowden amounts to “a condemnation of the president’s policies of disengagement and retrenchment around the world.”
Complicating Obama’s challenge is an intense fixation by the international media. Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and defense strategy expert at the Brookings Institution, called it “a perfect media story” because of ongoing intrigue about Snowden’s whereabouts coupled with his role in the renewed debate over security and privacy.
But, O’Hanlon added, “I don’t see this as a top-tier issue on par with Iran’s nuclear program, to the point where we should go to the mat over this. And even more importantly, I’m not sure what difference it would make if we did. This is still the way some of these governments do business with each other.”