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.