Will Putin Ever Let Snowden Leave?

The dirty secret is that Russia doesn't care about Edward anymore. It's all about luring the next turncoat.

Frank Deford, the venerable American sportswriter, once famously wrote that "professional wrestling is clean and everything else in the world is fixed." Deford should perhaps be considered a sharp observer of U.S. foreign policy as well, since the line aptly describes the wrestling match between Moscow and Washington over National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's flight to Russia.

While Snowden's odyssey from Hawaii to Hong Kong to Moscow is bizarre enough in its own right, it pales in comparison to the kabuki dance between the two superpowers over his fate. First there was the straight-faced insistence from Washington that Snowden is an accused felon and thus must be returned to face American justice. Attorney General Eric Holder even gave his assurances that Snowden will not face the death penalty.

On the Russian side, after equally straight-faced bobbing and weaving on whether Snowden was even on Russian soil, or would be granted asylum, President Vladimir Putin declared Snowden may remain in Russia for awhile, provided he "stop his work aimed at harming our American partners." After another month of exaggerated legal hammerlocks, Snowden's Russian attorney finally sprang him from airport limbo, popped him into a waiting cab, and disappeared him into his new Mother Russia.

It's probably safe to say now that most of this back and forth was purely for public consumption.

American intelligence must have known and advised the White House, the Justice Department, and the Congress that the Russians would ultimately provide Snowden some form of safe harbor. Handing him back to the United States was never a serious option. Russian intelligence, and that would include former KGB officer and now President Putin, understands the chilling effect turning Snowden back would have on whatever prospective U.S. turncoat might be waiting in the wings, ready to hand over American secrets to Moscow's spymasters. And yes, let us assume these prospective turncoats are out there.

In the long history of the spy game between these two adversaries, the intelligence volunteer -- the willing turncoat -- motivated by money, revenge, lust, or simply boredom has always been the central character. And the Russian and U.S. intelligence services have built their crafts around the handling of the next volunteer, the next intelligence goldmine, whether it is an Aldrich Ames or a Robert Hanssen crossing over from our side, or an Adolf Tolkachev coming to us from theirs.

Over the course of the Cold War the only case of a defector being turned back by the Americans against his will involved a lowly Soviet ship-jumper of absolutely no intelligence value, a 25-year-old Ukrainian merchant seaman named Miroslav Medvid, who in 1985 twice jumped from the Soviet grain ship, Marshal Konev, into the Mississippi River at New Orleans trying to defect. Twice, he was turned back by U.S. immigration authorities until irate members of Congress, led by Sen. Jesse Helms, demanded that the ship be held in port until the issue was resolved. Ukrainian-American groups joined the fray, and President Ronald Reagan's upcoming summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev seemed threatened by the flap. In the end, Medvid was forcibly returned to the USSR, and Reagan had his summit with Gorbachev in Geneva a few weeks later. But a subsequent congressional investigations over the next two years concluded that the United States had violated the U.S. Helsinki Commission on human rights by turning him in. (There was something close to a happy ending, however. Medvid, after being hauled back to Ukraine in chains, became an Eastern Orthodox priest, and later even visited the United States legally.)

The lesson here is that neither the United States nor Russia will turn back intelligence defectors, legitimate fugitives, or wandering whistleblowers, each of whom are by definition "felons" once they end up on our respective shores. Doing so would be about as likely as the Americans and the Russians ceasing to run clandestine intelligence operations on each other's soil. There may be more sound and fury over the Snowden affair, but in a real world there should be little effect on U.S.-Russian relations. The administration could, indeed, draw another of its red lines and cancel the summit this fall, but that would be nothing more than extending the theater of the Snowden affair. Whether there will be profound changes in how NSA conducts its business remains an open question.

But Snowden's life has changed forever. One doubts that he will return to face the charges against him. That outcome is far too certain -- just look at Bradley Manning. And clever as he might be with computers, Snowden will probably not find any meaningful opportunity for a normal life in Russia. Instead he will join a line of pathetic Western intelligence personalities who simply faded into the Russian woodwork as footnotes to history. Of the Americans who blazed the trail Snowden has followed, the most recent that we know of was Edward Lee Howard, a revenge-seeking CIA officer who defected to the Soviet Union in 1985, after betraying a number of American assets in the USSR. Howard reportedly died in a drunken fall at his dacha in 2002, though the novelist in me has always wondered whether he might have gone through some extreme makeover courtesy of the KGB and might now be a tall beach blond tending bar at Carlos and Charlie's in Aruba.

The Russians will tire of Snowden soon enough. His intelligence value is limited to whatever he has on those laptops, and whatever a 30-year-old contractor with a few months on the job might know that the Russians don't already know. And much of that is now public anyway. Soon enough his future choices will be between the Rosetta Stone language discs or the Stolichnaya bottle on his coffee table.

The real scandal here is how Snowden was able to steal terabytes of data from the NSA in the first place. One should have no doubts that the Russians have drained the laptops; nor should we have any doubts that the Chinese also copied the data on his computers.

The end of the match, then, is something of a tie between the U.S. and Russia, and a win for China, as usual, and the Deford Dictum applies.

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The Snake That Eats Itself

Why coups beget coups beget coups.

The Turkish political system -- attempting to forge a synthesis between a strong and politically-active military, the well-to-do, educated (and often bureaucratic) elite, and the impoverished, conservative, and Muslim majority -- used to be touted as a role model for the rest of the Middle East. The recent demonstrations against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government have hinted that Turkish democracy is much more fragile, and in many ways more superficial, than many suspected. But despite recent events, there are still important lessons from Turkish history for the rest of the region -- particularly Egypt.

The troubles of Turkish democracy over the last 70 years, and the current impasse created by the government's hard-line attitude toward peaceful protesters, reflect a deep-rooted polarization in society, one that has developed over decades. But it has also been exploited frequently by rival factions and strongmen when they thought the polarization would serve them politically.

The polarization of Turkey, as well as that of Egypt, is often painted by outsiders as a clash between Westernizing liberals and elites on one side, and the traditional and religious masses. This image is only partly true -- and mostly misleading. The essential conflict of both countries should be seen as one rooted in political, social, and economic inequalities.

The great economist Simon Kuznets argued that early stages of economic development must necessarily be associated with a surge in inequality. Economic and social modernization has indeed created deep chasms in many societies in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. But there is nothing natural about such inequities. Rather, they reflect the fact that opportunities are very unequally distributed, particularly in the early days of development, often open only to those who already control political power or occupy privileged positions in society.

The unfairness of this development process, as well as the sense of unfairness it engenders which often exceeds the reality of it, is beneath the tendency for polarization in these societies.

Though the faultlines in these countries center on the gulf between the haves vs. the have-nots, the ensuing polarization often takes different guises. In much of Latin America, those left behind, without political power and economic opportunity, are often indigenous or mestizo communities, who feel the unfairness of this stunted development process acutely. They are the ones without access to education, public health, roads or a political voice. They are the ones, not surprisingly, associating modernization with their plight, and rallying around populist leaders like Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

In Egypt and Turkey, those often left behind are the millions who have recently migrated from, or are still living in, provincial cities and rural parts of the country. These groups are the Islamist base, but even when defense of religion and tradition becomes their rallying cry, one might wonder how much of their grievances really go back to political, social, and economic exclusion. The main problem facing democracy in many societies, particularly in Turkey and Egypt, is to mediate these divisions while creating a more inclusive political system and economy.

This is where Turkey has failed many times in its history, and Egypt should have heeded these lessons. Alas, Egypt is following the same perilous steps.

Too dramatic? Let's look at the facts.

As with Egypt, the first transition to a true multi-party democracy in Turkey was a painful process, arriving only in 1946 with the founding of the Democratic Party (DP), a business-friendly, conservative party willing to depart from the top-down approach of military and bureaucratic elites and speak to the priorities of the masses. Two previous half-hearted experiments with controlled multi-party democracy were cut short by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, when the loyal opposition turned out to attract much more support than could be tolerated.

In 1950, to the great disappointment and apprehension of military and state elites, the DP, led by its leader Adnan Menderes, swept to power with a landslide election victory. Perhaps inevitably given their poorer, more provincial, less educated and more religious base, their rhetoric was populist and Islam-tinged, further rankling the state elites.

But the DP leaders, themselves weaned on politics within the ruling party before 1946, were no angels. Corruption was rampant. What's more, once they saw their popularity slide, they just adopted their rivals' playbook wholesale and notched up the repression. Newspapers started appearing with big empty columns, where articles censored at the last moment would have been.

Then, on May 27, 1960, came a military coup, widely supported by the bureaucracy, the intellectual elites, and the supposedly pro-democracy Turkish "liberals." The enthusiasm was palpable: the military was saving democracy from the DP and Adnan Menderes, wresting power from the masses deemed to be too immature for democracy or politics, and placing power firmly in the hands of the more enlightened. The military moved swiftly to hang three of the DP's leaders -- including Menderes himself.

Emboldened by the experience, the military would intervene three more times in Turkish politics in the next 40 years, deepening the polarization of society between the elites and the rest in the process.

Today, we are still seeing the reverberations of this polarization. Peaceful protests throughout the country are being met with brutal police crackdowns and an intransigent attitude from Erdogan and his ruling AKP, with the full backing of their loyal supporters. They see the protests as just another attempt by the well-educated, secular, and pro-military elites to retain power. This is somewhat understandable given that -- as recently as April 2007 -- the military, supported by these elites and the constitutional court, tried to oust the AKP from power and close it down. (The government did not resign, the constitutional court got cold feet at the last moment, and the AKP and its government survived).

What would have happened to Turkish politics without the military coup of 1960? Perhaps Menderes and other DP elites would have irreparably damaged the economy or somehow cowed society into total submission before the next election, effectively setting up their own dictatorship. But this seems unlikely. Rather, they would have probably been kicked out of power in the next election, cementing the credentials of Turkish democracy.

Through this lens, the situation in Egypt seems quite similar. Just like the DP in Turkey, once it took power the Muslim Brotherhood dropped all of the conciliatory, compromise-seeking veneer that it projected before the election. And sure, Mohamed Morsy, just like Menderes, was turning authoritarian, attempting to bring his people into positions of power within the state bureaucracy. And yes, again as in Turkey towards the end of the DP rule, the economy was ailing.

So what would have happened without the military coup that took place on July 3, 2013, ignominiously kicking Morsy out of power and taking him into military custody?

Again, nobody knows. It is possible that the economy would have been so deeply damaged that even greater and more violent protests would have erupted. The Muslim Brotherhood might have taken over the arteries of power so thoroughly that they would have been able to set up their own dictatorship, effectively blocking any path that may have temporarily opened to a truly inclusive democracy, where power is shared pluralistically rather than being wielded uncompromisingly by whoever finds himself in power at the time.

But this scenario seems as unlikely as that of the DP in Turkey setting up its own dictatorship in the face of a strong, mobilized, opposition. There was already strong discontent with Morsy and his government, witnessed by the more than the 22 million signatures calling for him to step down before the coup took place. With this level of opposition in an already mobilized society, could the Muslim Brotherhood really set up its own dictatorship before the next election?

Just like in Turkey in 1960, what Egypt really needed was for those who had ascended to power for the first time to peacefully lose an election. Not because the other side cannot tolerate the very thought of those who have so long been viewed as second-class citizens sitting in the presidential palace, but because they just weren't governing well. Because they simply lost the support of ordinary people and had to leave the way they came, through the polls.

Just like in Turkey, Egypt needed assurances to both sides that politics can be inclusive, with every segment of society, regardless of creed, religion, gender and social status, sharing power. Instead, at its first hour of democratic challenge, Turkey got the heavy boot of the soldiers, not only crushing its burgeoning democracy but also tainting its intellectuals and elites in the deed. So did Egypt.

The Turkish elites' failure to tolerate the inclusion of large segments of the population in the political system, and the wanton violence they exacted on political leaders they disliked, polarized society further and hardened those left out of power. It left those who were denied a place at the political table without a true belief in democratic politics. The same is happening in Egypt.

So is this spiral of deeper and deeper polarization the lot of these societies? Can Turkey or Egypt break out of it?

There is no easy solution, since the spiral feeds on itself. But many countries have shown how it can be broken by developing and institutionalizing a balance of power in politics, rather than just living with the domination of one group over the rest of society. Yet this is a slow process, unlikely to get off the ground anytime soon in either country.

A more rapid change can come from leaders with vision and courage, as exemplified by Nelson Mandela's tireless efforts to close the enormous chasm between blacks and whites in South Africa. His gestures for building an inclusive, multi-racial "rainbow nation" reached their apex when he wore the jersey of the rugby team, the Springboks, traditionally associated with the racist, apartheid state and repression against blacks, signaling to those currently out of government that they were still, and would continue to be, included in power -- their voices heard, their rights respected.

Alas, nobody in Turkey or Egypt has yet shown half that courage. But we can still wait optimistically, consoling ourselves that breaking the spiral of polarization also requires patience.