After playing bad cop with the Chinese, the United States is now playing good cop with the Kremlin in its global pursuit of NSA leaker Edward Snowden
On Tuesday, in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's declaration that Snowden would not be extradited to the U.S., American officials responded with a flurry of diplomatic pleasantries. "We've seen comments by Foreign Minister Lavrov and President Putin and we understand that Russia must consider the issues raised by Mr. Snowden's decision to travel there," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. "We agree with President Putin that we do not want this issue to negatively impact our bilateral relations."
Secretary of State John Kerry struck a similarly conciliatory tone during a news conference in Saudi Arabia. "We are not looking for a confrontation," Kerry said Tuesday. "We are not ordering anybody. We are simply requesting under a very normal procedure for the transfer of somebody."
Both Kerry and Hayden insisted that a "clear legal basis" existed to expel Snowden based on the "status of his travel documents and the pending charges against him." But their measured tones contrasted with Monday's fiery condemnations of China and threats to Russia after Snowden fled from Hong Kong to Moscow.
Those remarks saw Kerry vowing that there would be "consequences" if Russia failed to return Snowden. They also saw White House Press Secretary Jay Carney coming down even harder on China. "This was a deliberate choice by the government to release the fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant," he said. "That decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship ... If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, then there is a problem."
When asked why Kerry and other U.S. officials seems to be cooling down their rhetoric, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell pointed out a difference between the Chinese and the Russian predicaments. With Hong Kong, "we had and have a longstanding bilateral extradition treaty," said Ventrell. With Russia, "there's a slightly different situation ... We don't have a formal extradition treaty."
If one were to read between the lines, it would suggest that Washington is at Moscow's mercy to send back Snowden, which makes friendly overtures something of a last resort. Officials have been quick to point out that the U.S. has sent numerous criminals back to Russia at the Kremlin's behest, but that doesn't guarantee reciprocity.
"We do think that he should be expelled and deported to the United States," said Ventrell. "There's a basis for this cooperation. There's been some excellent law enforcement cooperation and we'd like that to continue." When asked why Kerry and other officials seemed to be walking back their rhetoric, Ventrell rejected the characterization. "Our points have been consistent all along."
The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.