Snowden: In a hole, stop digging

If you have spent any time in a political environment, then you will tend to react to a political crisis or controversy in two different and separate ways. On the one hand, you may well have an opinion about the underlying issue. On the other, you will probably also have an opinion about how well a government has handled the issue from a technical perspective. It may be that – as was the case with the 1991 war against Iraq, for example – you have grave doubts about the morality of the policy, but that, from a technical point of view, you have to admit that the issue was intelligently handled.
That obviously is not the case with the US government’s chaotic pursuit of Edward (or Edmund, no-one seems to be sure) Snowden, the former NSA employee. The shambolic way in which the issue has been handled screams amateurism, even extending to not being able to give the Hong Kong government his correct name and passport number when asked.
But it indicates something else as well: a worrying blindness to wider issues and, frankly, to the larger interests of the country. If you’ve just been found out spying on the citizens of other countries, it’s politically inept to demand of those same countries that they help you to catch the individual responsible for these revelations. If one of those countries is your principal banker (China) and another is a major oil exporter (Russia) then threatening them as well is not only pointless, it’s also counter-productive. In both relationships, the US has more to lose than either of the others.
So it’s perhaps time to remember the sage advice of Dennis Healey: when you’re in a hole, stop digging. From the beginning, the US would have done far better to have played the issue down, and it would then have been forgotten rapidly. But by making a drama of it, threatening and trying to bully other nations, and peremptorily demanding assistance from those whose interests it has damaged, is only going to harm US interests as well in the longer term. Whatever the need for the wimp Obama to look “tough” on national security issues, he’s not doing himself, or his country, any favours.

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