President Obama has cancelled his September visit to Russia to meet with President Putin, presumably to protest Russia's temporary grant of asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. That's how the Russian media is interpreting the decision, and the American media doesn't exactly disagree. Is Snowden worth such trouble? The New York Times, anticipating Obama's decision and applauding it in advance, asks a different question: is Putin worth the trouble? The editors now seem to regard the President of Russia, if not as an enemy, then as the sort of international pariah to whom a visit from the President of the United States confers undeserved legitimacy. "Under the circumstances, the only outcome of a summit meeting would be to add to Mr. Putin’s domestic political capital and his already considerable self-esteem," the Times sneers.
Actually, it appears that the two countries have at least one important thing to discuss. While the American media has tended to portray Russia's solicitude toward Snowden as little more than a thumb to the American eye, Russians see the story in the context of ongoing negotiations, or the lack thereof, over a mutual extradition treaty. In the lack of a current treaty, some Russians argue that a treaty signed under the Romanov dynasty in 1893 retains legal force, while Americans have argued since at least the 1940s that the old treaty is obsolete. The idea of a mutual-extradition treaty with Russia have never been popular here because Russia has always been viewed as an authoritarian power that illegitimately criminalizes politics. The Times doesn't address the treaty issue, but its anti-summit editorial gets to the heart of the trouble in its dismissal of Snowden's right to asylum.
"Mr. Snowden undoubtedly fears returning home because he would be
arrested and prosecuted. But those fears do not qualify him for asylum," the editorial writer argues, "Asylum is for people who are afraid to return to their own country
because they fear persecution, unlawful imprisonment or even death
because of their race, their ethnicity, their religion, their membership
in particular social or political groups, or their political beliefs."
One man's prosecution is another's persecution. To the extent that Snowden sees himself as a whistleblower, he presumably considers his leaks to be necessary acts of political dissent. He clearly assumes that he would be subject to political persecution in the U.S. regardless of whatever statutory crime he's charged with. The Times seems incapable of imagining that prosecution and persecution can take place simultaneously, at least in the United States, though it and other "liberal media" routinely make that very assumption when foreign governments try politically controversial figures on criminal charges. Depending on the country -- take Russia, for instance -- it's self-evident to American liberals that whatever criminal charge is made has been trumped up by an authoritarian regime to cover its repression of dissent. Foreign dissidents almost always get the benefit of the doubt, and liberal media like the Times sometimes extend that benefit of the doubt to American dissidents, but the latter case seems to depend on what you dissent against. You can dissent against bigotry or intolerance in some places, especially if liberals can make Republican authorities out to be the bad guys, but if you dissent against American foreign or national-security policy by the simplest means of publicizing what the government does, then you're a common criminal in the eyes of the New York Times. It shouldn't surprise anyone in the U.S. if foreign observers see this differently. It may be hypocritical for them to give dissent the benefit of the doubt this time, but there's plenty of hypocrisy to go around the world. The real problem isn't hypocrisy but a lack of international comity as each country reserves the right to make a prosecution/persecution distinction to its own ideological specifications. Global comity may smack of "moral equivalence" to observers who take moral exception to the idea that all governments are equal, but a global rule of law depends on achieving some global standard of comity -- and, yes, preferably one that doesn't throw all the world's dissidents under the bus. Working toward such a goal looks like a good reason for Obama and Putin to talk to each other -- but I admit that they could just as well skip the pomp and get this done over the phone.