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August 6, 2013

Snowden Asylum Shows a Reset Failure

White House spin is wishful thinking

Remember the Russian “reset”?

That was the term that President Obama and his then-Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, used four years ago when they spoke of a new era in U.S.-Russian relations. The goal: to “cooperate more effectively in areas of common interest.” Both leaders were “committed to leaving behind the suspicion and the rivalry of the past.”

Two years later, Vladimir Putin, then serving as prime minister, was calling the United States a “parasite” on the global economy, and the U.S. State Department was putting 64 Russian officials on a visa blacklist.

Now we have Moscow granting asylum for one year to Edward Snowden, the infamous leaker of classified information about government surveillance programs, and the Obama administration talking about canceling next month’s Putin-Obama summit – a post-Cold War era first, if it happens.

This “reset” is feeling more like a rerun with each passing day.

This isn’t all that surprising. Old habits die hard, and the former Soviet Union is still defining itself in opposition to the United States.

The Snowden defection gives the propagandists in the Kremlin another chance to persuade Russians that their country is so appealing that foreigners want to come and live there. If they considered it a big deal when the French actor Gerard Depardieu became a Russian citizen (to evade a punitive income tax), you can imagine what a coup it is to draw a cause celebre such as Edward Snowden.

Mr. Snowden also enables Moscow to play up the idea that the country promotes the free flow of information, while the United States is the mean, old police state, according to Russia expert Ariel Cohen. After all, he notes, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the darling of hip libertarians the world over, has his own show on Russia Today. The Kremlin is happy to promote the absurd notion that Russia is the home of freedom of speech, not the United States.

Such an image flies in the face of reality. As Heritage Foundation senior fellow Helle Dale recently noted, at least 19 journalists have been slain since Mr. Putin came to power. All major media are in the hands of the state or of state-owned companies. Moscow has severely restricted the right to protest, at least by anti-Kremlin protesters. They are routinely thrown in jail, while pro-Kremlin protesters are left unmolested.

There’s another reason for Russia’s leaders to grant Mr. Snowden asylum: It helps them negotiate from a position of strength. Now they have something to bargain with when they meet with Mr. Obama. If he cancels the summit, they anticipate that they will win the public-relations war, not the United States.

As long as the wishful thinking behind the reset policy prevails, it’s easy to see why. Even after Russia announced it had granted Mr. Snowden asylum – an “unfortunate development,” White House press secretary Jay Carney allowed – the reset was being praised for its “positive benefits for American national security.” In the same spirit of redundancy, can we also hear about its negative drawbacks?

The “action by the Russian government could not be more provocative and is a sign of Vladimir Putin’s clear lack of respect for President Obama,” said Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, calling it a “deliberate effort to embarrass the United States.”

“We cannot allow today’s action by Putin to stand without serious repercussions,” they said.

However well-intentioned the reset may have been, it’s time to admit it’s been a failure. As Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham said, “We need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we might wish for.” Pretending otherwise only makes the world a more dangerous place.

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