In Transit

We’re old now. After the amazing sixties ended – graduation in the last June of the decade, with the Beatles calling it off, with Richard Nixon in the White House, with Henry Kissinger at his side – adulthood began, such as it was. Possibilities shut down. The world got nasty and narrow – no one was all that surprised when Nixon invaded Cambodia, or when the National Guard shot and killed those hapless student protesters at Kent State, and Nixon had his enemies list:

This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly – how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.

Yeah, well, Paul Newman, the actor, was on the list. He did fine. People loved his movies, but using the available federal machinery to screw your political enemies really was the order of the day – until Daniel Ellsberg got off the hook for copying all those Pentagon Papers and releasing them to the press. Nixon really shouldn’t have allowed his aides to break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to find a way to prove the guy was a pervert or something. Watergate didn’t work out either. Using the vast weight of the FBI and CIA and IRS to screw your political enemies – to make their claims you’d been doing nasty and illegal stuff go away – only works if those agencies choose to cooperate. Firing the special prosecutor didn’t work out either – the attorney general resigned rather than fire Archibald Cox, and the next guy in line did the same. The third guy in line, Robert Bork, did the deed, and later he was raked over the coals in his Senate confirmation hearings and never made it to the Supreme Court.

He was a nasty man. There are limits. Still, after the peace-and-love sixties, full of hope, the international man of mystery, who always saved the day, was James Bond, working in the shadows of shadows, suavely killing the bad guys. It had to be done, and in the real world, there was Henry Kissinger, a practitioner of realpolitik – where everything is about power and cold national interests, not ideology or morals or ethics. Nixon went to China. Kissinger was sticking it to the Soviets. This wasn’t about world peace. This would change the balance of power, tilting things our way. The morally superior anticommunist Republican right would just have to get over it.

The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a book about this view of things – The Trial of Henry Kissinger – laying out the case that Kissinger ought to be tried “for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture.” It’s quite convincing – our assassination of Salvatore Allende is the least of it – but Kissinger is now ninety and pops up on cable now and then, as the grand old man of international diplomacy, explaining how the world really works. It’s not nice out there. Nations must do what they must. The neoconservative crowd needs to realize the shock and awe of war isn’t the answer to everything, nor is peace always a good thing. Take a cold hard look at things. Do what you must and screw the rules, and forget how you feel about things. In fact, train yourself not to feel anything. Compassion and empathy ruin great nations.

It’s no wonder Nixon had Henry Kissinger direct our foreign policy – the two of them thought alike. Still, as crude and graceless as Nixon was, Kissinger was a diplomat, the master of what he called purposeful ambiguity, and diplomacy isn’t brutal. It’s talk, usually in quite pleasant settings, with everyone on their best and most formal behavior. Kissinger said it wasn’t like when he was back at Harvard – “University politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” When the stakes are large, everyone behaves. No one wants the world to end. That’s not in anyone’s national interest.

That was the world of the seventies – the nasty and narrow world of realpolitik – and one shouldn’t get stuck in the seventies. Disco was bad enough, and it’s been hard to reboot the James Bond franchise. It’s not just that MGM keeps bouncing in and out of bankruptcy, and Daniel Craig is a fine actor – it’s just that brutality without compassion or empathy is no longer the order of the day. It has become repellant, or at least uninteresting. We have Matt Damon as Jason Bourne – the trained CIA assassin who now doesn’t want to assassinate anyone anymore, who hunts down the children of those he has previously assassinated and apologizes, and works hard to dismantle the cold realpolitik organization that’s out to kill him because he’s become quite inconvenient. Jason Bourne has become this age’s hero. There’s cold national interest, and there’s doing the right thing. We cheer for the guy who tries to do the right thing.

That’s the problem with Edward Snowden of course. Maybe he’s heroically doing the right thing, exposing the extent of the government using what everyone else gathers about us for purely commercial purposes anyway, to make money, and using that to build a database of all communication activity, to discover patterns that might stop a terrorist attack or two. That cannot be right. The government shouldn’t know all that stuff about us – just Google and Apple and Facebook and Amazon and the rest, selling it to each other’s marketing departments. That sort of thing in the government’s hands could lead to Big Brother fascism. Or it could keep us safe, and letting everyone know what we’re up to, especially letting the bad guys know what we’re up to, could be dangerous – the bad guys will surely find a workaround. You could see it either way, but like Jason Bourne, he’s on the run, except that unlike Jason Bourne, he’s a preening jerk, and now making some strange alliances:

Edward Snowden – sought on espionage charges after bringing secret U.S. surveillance programs to light – receded still further into the shadows Monday as the United States strenuously called on Russia to turn him over for prosecution.

Snowden, a former government contractor who has not been seen in public since he was said to have arrived in Moscow on Sunday after slipping out of Hong Kong, set off a flurry of diplomatic activity around the globe as frustrated U.S. officials tried to interrupt his flight to asylum. The 30-year-old fugitive, according to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, who said he was advising Snowden [sic].

After reporters and airline officials said Snowden failed to board a flight from Moscow to Havana on Monday afternoon as expected, the United States intensified its pressure on the countries suspected of offering him possible protection. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the United States believed Snowden was still in Moscow.

He’s carrying four laptops with everything one might want to know about the NSA systems and databases, and at any moment could hand them over to the Russians or the Cubans, since he didn’t hand them over to the Chinese, or he could say no. No one knows what he’ll do. Whose side is he on? He says he’s on the side of the oppressed American people, and says that from Moscow, which creates a diplomatic mess:

“We continue to hope that the Russians will do the right thing,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry, traveling in India, told NBC News. “We think it’s very important in terms of our relationship.”

Russian news agencies quoted a string of careful statements from unnamed sources, who said they were powerless to intervene because Snowden remained in a transit area of the airport and had not crossed the border into official Russian territory.

“The Americans can’t demand anything,” Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s human rights ombudsman and a former U.S. ambassador, told the Interfax news agency.

Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, who was traveling in Vietnam, read from a letter he said Snowden had sent President Rafael Correa. In the letter, Snowden compared himself to Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, charged in the leak of a trove of classified material passed to WikiLeaks, and said he did not believe he would be treated justly and that he could be executed if returned to the United States.

It looks like he’s heading to Ecuador, which is odd, as is his transit:

Kerry, citing widespread Internet limits and human rights issues in Russia and China, said it was “no small irony” that Snowden was seeking cooperation from those countries in his quest to protect civil liberties.

Yes, it is odd:

Patiño, the Ecuadoran foreign minister, said his government was “in close contact with the Russian government” but did not have specific information about Snowden’s whereabouts.

Patiño said Ecuador, which has been sharply criticized for silencing journalists at home, was considering Snowden’s asylum request. He praised the former government contractor for disclosing the surveillance program and said Ecuador was free to exercise its sovereignty as it saw fit with regard to Snowden.

When asked if he was concerned about damaging his nation’s economic relationship with Washington, Patiño remained adamant. “Ecuador puts its principles above its economic interests,” he said.

Henry Kissinger would be appalled, but Correa, the Ecuadoran president, wants to be the next Hugo Chávez, and Politico’s Ben Smith in this item says journalists should stop debating Snowden’s character on all this, as this guy is “what used to be known as a source, and reporters don’t, and shouldn’t, spend too much time thinking about the moral status of their sources.”

Michael Moynihan doesn’t think so – this country-hopping makes his character fair game:

As NSA leaker Edward Snowden hopped from authoritarian China to authoritarian Russia, to catch a connecting flight to dictatorial Cuba with a final stop in either Ecuador or Venezuela (two countries with dubious commitments to democratic norms), those of us left scratching our heads – and wondering if Daniel Ellsberg had transformed into Philip Agee – were offered a piece of advice: we needn’t talk about Edward.

We do:

Yes, it is necessary to point out that, from Moscow, Snowden looks to be relocating, after a possible stop in Havana, to Ecuador, a country classified by Freedom House as “partially free,” with an “unfree” press. As we debate protecting journalists like Glenn Greenwald from the scurrilous attacks of both his fellow journalists, and politicians, it’s also worth noting that the Committee to Protect Journalists has expressed its “dismay” over a repressive new media law, inspired by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s late mentor Hugo Chávez, that allows the government to “impose arbitrary sanctions and censor the press.”

As we bang on about the importance of transparency, we should remember that the Ecuadorian National Assembly, in which 100 of 137 seats are held by Correa’s ruling party, approved the controversial measure, according to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, “without debating any of its provisions – not even the ones that were added in the last moment.” Or maybe revisit Amnesty’s 2012 complaint that Correa was overseeing a “pattern of criminalization of community leaders who have participated in peaceful protests and then face unfounded charges, arbitrary arrests, and strict bail conditions simply for campaigning against laws and policies on the use of natural resources.”

One wonders what Snowden is thinking, but the Washington Post’s Max Fisher in this item considers what Putin or Rafael Correa get for Ecuador granting asylum to Snowden:

By sheltering Assange and possibly Snowden, infuriating the United States in the process, Correa bolsters his image as a national champion standing up to the Americans as well as his case for vigilance against the imperialist threat, including in the independent media he has painted as pro-Washington. Snowden, wittingly or not, could risk granting Correa’s crackdowns some political cover by accepting asylum there.

It’s difficult to imagine that Snowden or Assange earnestly support Correa’s treatment of journalists or his ideology, much less the far worse abuses of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And it’s not hard to see why someone might prefer asylum with a troubled Latin American democracy to risking life in a jail cell. But it’s difficult to escape the irony of these two high-profile activists, who got themselves wanted by the United States for leaks they say expose U.S. abuses, now allying themselves with governments infamous for abuses that are by any reasonable metric far more egregious.

Snowden thus becomes the classic useful idiot – giving these guys cover to wipe out the vestiges of their independent press. He thinks Correa and Putin are fine folks, you see. They can point to him. He likes them, a lot.

The curious thing is that China was having none of this:

The Hong Kong government said it allowed Snowden to leave because the U.S. request to provisionally arrest Snowden did not comply with legal requirements. At the same time, however, it mentioned that it asked the U.S. for more information on the hacking, suggesting the issue played some role in its decision.

While Hong Kong has a high degree of autonomy from the rest of China, experts said Beijing orchestrated Snowden’s exit to remove an irritant in Sino-U.S. relations.

“The central government had to have intervened since this is an issue of international relations and national security,” said Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Ultimately, Shen said, China compromised – by deciding to neither grant Snowden protection nor hand him over as the U.S. requested. That approach has the advantage of heading off a crisis in relations with the U.S. and demonstrating to Washington that Beijing values the overall relationship over any advantage it might gain from keeping Snowden, Shen said. He said handing Snowden over would have been an unpopular move within China.

Perhaps they remember Henry Kissinger fondly. Don’t make moral points. Do what is in the national interest:

Hong Kong lawmaker and lawyer Albert Ho said he suspects authorities in Beijing were calling the shots.

He said his firm had been representing Snowden in an effort to clarify his legal situation with the government. Snowden wanted to know what his circumstances would be like in the event he was arrested and whether he would be able to leave the city if he wanted. Ho said an intermediary who claimed to represent the government relayed a message to Snowden saying he was free to leave and should do so.

Ho said he didn’t know the identity of the intermediary and wasn’t sure whether the person was acting on Hong Kong’s or Beijing’s behalf.

“The entire decision was probably made in Beijing and Beijing decided to act on its best interests,” Ho told reporters. “However, Beijing would not want to be seen on stage because it would affect Sino-U.S. relations. That’s why China has somebody acting in the background.”

It’s that purposeful ambiguity thing again. Work in the background. Steer clear of ideology and ethics and morals. Do a cold assessment of national interests, and do something sly.

That’s not how people think these days, and a reader at Talking Points Memo, identified only as MB, explains why that is:

What I find most compelling about the Snowden affair is what it says about changing generational attitudes toward foreign policy – in particular, I feel that it’s the first major salvo in Generation Y’s war on realist foreign policy.

The Age of Kissinger is over:

Edward Snowden and I are the same age; our adolescence sits squarely between the fall of the Soviet Union (8 years old) and the events of 9/11 (18 years old). During that time, without the bipolar rivalry that overshadowed much of the twentieth century, American culture shifted toward a greater emphasis on issues that assumed global cooperation, such as environmentalism and humanitarianism, and placed significant value on cross-cultural exchange. (I’m thinking of shows like Captain Planet, in which an international, multi-ethnic team of kids thwart rapacious corporate villains). Furthermore, it was always assumed that the United States, secure in its position as the world’s sole superpower, would be leading such efforts, and doing what it could to bring about a more unified, less contentious world community.

Contrast that with the tenets of realism, which assume that competition between states is an immutable fact of life, and that individual nation-states are, in some sense, perpetually at each other’s throats for the upper hand on the world stage. In such an environment, the less savory aspects of spycraft (like spying on your allies, or hacking into the servers of private companies) make perfect sense. But in the world Edward Snowden and a lot of other Gen Y kids thought they were growing up in, it’s a gross violation of basic decency. Worse, it’s a vestige of a bygone era, a worldview that has no appeal to children of the Information Age, who have seen the power of unbounded, collaborative spaces like the Internet and are increasingly disgusted with the human toll wreaked by self-serving foreign policy.

These folks don’t go to James Bond movies, because they make no sense:

The national security apparatus is designed to defend itself against Cold War threats: agents who commit espionage in the service of a foreign power for ideological reasons, or for personal gain. It seems that it is not at all prepared to defend itself against espionage committed for personal, ethical reasons, done at one’s own detriment. It may not ever be possible to do so. On some level, this line of business requires that all those involved completely accept the utility and purpose of the mission, and accept that international relations are a zero-sum game. Otherwise, anyone could walk out of their office with a thumb drive and publish the contents online.

I think that over the next few decades, as more and more members of Gen Y reach maturity and begin taking the reins of power in government, we’re going to see fewer and fewer people willing to swallow that kind of cynical, game-theory worldview. While Baby Boomers and Generation X are killing themselves trying to figure out how to beat their opponent in the prisoner’s dilemma, Gen Y wants to break out of the prison.

That’s what those Jason Bourne movies are all about. Unfortunately, this Snowden fellow is no Jason Bourne, and no one is out to kill him. He just likes to think so. Maybe he saw the movies and fancies himself as Matt Damon, as this may be espionage committed for personal, ethical reasons, done at one’s own detriment, and thus heroic. It is, until you decide to throw in your lot with thugs who will use you for their own purposes. But Henry Kissinger was right about one thing. This is getting vicious because the stakes are so low.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to In Transit

  1. lawlessview says:

    I enjoy this historical posts very much! they are written nicely with snappy wit instead mundane reciting of facts, you can tell the personal yet broad appeal of it! thank you from Ireland!

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