Responding to reporters this week, President Obama had an appropriately measured take on the search for Edward Snowden, whose leaks have sparked an international debate over National Security Agency surveillance methods.
"No, I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker," Obama said. Not only will he not scramble jets, Obama seemed to cool his jets, at least diplomatically, when he said he had not called the leaders of Russia and China in order to detain Snowden.
"I'm not going to have one case with a suspect who we're trying to extradite suddenly be elevated to the point where I've got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues, simply to get a guy extradited so he can face the justice system," Obama said.
Obama's right to downplay the diplomatic stakes, even if critics excoriate the president's foreign policy as feckless. After all, it's unlikely that even a direct appeal by Obama would have convinced Chinese President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin to extradite Snowden, who is accused of violating the Espionage Act, among other charges.
In fact, the realpolitik reality is that it really doesn't depend on who is president, said Barry Pavel, vice president of the Atlantic Council.
"I'm not convinced they [Russia and China] would have treated this any differently if it was Ronald Reagan, John McCain or Mitt Romney," Pavel said in an interview. "This is nation-state stuff, and they are doing what nation-states can do, and getting away with it."
The United States should do nation-state stuff, too. But it should do it smartly, and not let the quest for Snowden supersede its strategic objectives. And it especially shouldn't let the Snowden story transcend the more profound need for a national debate over privacy and security.
That's the issue that Snowden claims to represent. But by naively allowing himself to be a pawn of Chinese and Russian leaders, he's actually given a global PR boost to their repressive regimes. Indeed, Snowden's choice of hiding in Hong Kong and Russia conveniently obscures the reality of Russian and Chinese suppression of its own citizens and immoral enabling of homicidal regimes in Syria, North Korea, Iran and elsewhere.
It is to resolve these issues that Obama should pick up the phone, and use whatever leverage left to press Putin and Xi to stop blocking the U.N. Security Council from concerted actions that could save lives.
Snowden not only has caused diplomatic damage, he's let his own quest for freedom overshadow the freedom agenda he claims originally motivated him.
That debate on the broader issue of surveillance in the post-9/11 era should proceed, however. But it's important to separate Snowden from the issue he represents. One can be skeptical of government overreach without supporting rogue contractors stealing state secrets and creating international incidents.
As this page previously called for, a transparent and inclusive national debate about the trade-offs between security and civil liberties should take place about the "metadata" methods the NSA employs, as well as the legal, political and societal framework that enables these tactics.
This debate won't be easy. But it's in keeping with our democratic traditions and can ultimately strengthen America, former Vice President Walter Mondale told an editorial writer.
"We're a democracy," Mondale said. "And there needs to be some edge here where we know the Constitution and laws have some meaning. I know we need secrets — I've been inside government. The government needs some elbow room to work with friends and allies. There are dangerous people in the world who don't wish us well, and we've have got to be on top of those risks."
At the same time, Mondale said, the Constitution matters.
"The police states don't care about that," he said. "They just do whatever they want. We hold higher standards for ourselves than that."
Indeed, holding ourselves to that higher standard will do far more to win the world's hearts and minds than spending our diplomatic capital on an obsessive quest for a "29-year-old hacker."