Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Petulant Snub of Putin

President Obama prides himself on being cool, calm, and collected. But his latest move—cancelling a summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin—suggests that he is having a hissy fit, succumbing to peevishness. It's wholly counterproductive. In attempting to cow Russia into releasing Edward Snowden, he isn't showcasing American power but its limitations. The more Obama seeks to challenge Putin, the stiffer Russian resistance will become. Obama's persecution of Snowden is singlehandedly transforming him into a Russian hero.

From the outset, Obama has bungled the Snowden affair. He elevated a minor National Security Agency employee into a worldwide hero by pulling out all the stops to capture him even as he proclaimed that he would not. This turned out to be malarkey. The president who said he wouldn't scramble jets after Snowden then scrambled them in Europe to ground the Bolivian president. In his contempt for Bolivian sovereignty, Obama's actions were more reminiscent of the old Soviet Union than American democracy. But it is Obama, more than any president since George W. Bush, who has displayed palpable contempt for American freedoms. Perhaps the former constitutional-law professor is afraid of being deemed weak by the military and intelligence establishments. Or maybe he truly believes that it's necessary to curb freedoms in order to protect them. Either way, he himself appears to have become a hostage of the intelligence agencies, which will relentlessly attempt to expand their reach as they seek what Admiral John Poindexter once termed total information awareness.

Obama seems barely aware of his transformation. His administration has relentlessly tried to track down leakers, imposing draconian penalities on govenrment employees who are either whistleblowers or have committed minor infractions. And in the more serious case of Bradley Manning, as John Judis of the New Republic has observed, Obama presided over what amounted to a "show trial."

Even as America retreats back into the Bush-Cheney era under Obama, the president is blaming Russia for reverting to cold war tactics. He said on Tuesday on the "Tonight Show" that

There have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality. And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.

But who is really stuck in a time warp? How does snubbing Putin enhance cooperation?

When it comes to Snowden, it is America, not Russia, that is behaving as though the frostiest days of the cold war continued to prevail. It seems clear that Snowden has become an obsession with Obama. WIth no one listening to Obama at home, perhaps he felt that this was the one arena where he could flex his muscles. If so, he had it wrong. Obama initially declared that the presidency was bigger than Snowden. If only he had believed what he said. Instead, he has transformed Snowden into a dissident who has found refuge in, of all places, Russia.