Uncle Sam needs you

Former National Security Agency and CIA consultant Edward Snowden 'hopscotches' from the US to Hong Kong to a transit lounge in Russia. Anirudh Bhattacharyya writes.
Updated on Jun 29, 2013 04:27 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByAnirudh Bhattacharyya

In the hilarious 1980 movie Hopscotch, Walter Matthau plays a CIA agent who has decided to quit the agency and publish memoirs revealing skeletons that Langley would rather have stay closeted.

The fictional ex-spook Miles Kendig is pursued across the globe by former colleagues who want to spike that book.

Thirty-three years later, that film has turned to reality television with former National Security Agency and CIA consultant Edward Snowden, the rogue elephant in the room, as he hopscotches from the US to Hong Kong to a transit lounge in Russia.

This episode has had its own farcical flourish.

As an Aeroflot planeload of journalists left from Moscow for Havana, expecting Snowden to be on board, they came to a terrible sobering realisation: not only had he skipped, but, worse, no alcohol was being served.

Snowden’s not the only person logging frequent flier miles. So is America’s secretary of state John Kerry, who completed his visit to New Delhi this week, during a 12-day, seven nation jaunt.

His official trip page on the State Department website is fascinating for its spelling of our capital as New Delhi, and for displaying a truncated version of Kashmir on the map that has been much disputed by our government, sort of symptomatic of the error-prone diplomacy that the Obama administration performs.

Somewhat like its secretary of state, its foreign policy is all over the place.

As Miles Kendig confronts an agent in a scene in Hopscotch, he muses, “Say, I thought you were taller. I don’t remember you being this short. How’d you get so short?”

In the current context, America’s problem isn’t just one of height, as its foreign policy keeps falling short, rather how its global influence has thinned.

In fact, Obama’s team has as much diplomatic weight to throw around as an anorexic model with bulimia; light as the feathers it keeps adding to its cap like mighty Hong Kong defying a plea to extradite Snowden.

Officials in that Special Administrative Region of China pointed out that the request from the United States Justice Department lacked some basic information like Snowden’s passport number.

Part of the reason certainly is its multiple missteps, from backing a 21st century pharaoh in Egypt, to Benghazi, and its fresh flailing in Afghanistan and Syria, each of which was on Kerry’s agenda as he pursued his frenzied trip, along with plenty of stumbles.

Rightly enough, there have been plenty of righteous assertions of the Bashar al-Assad regime being heartless. But with reports of cannibalism by al Qaeda-linked rebels, including those of eating hearts, it’s easy to lose heart when trying to differentiate the good guys from the villains.

The road to Damascus may be paved with good intentions, but even that could eventually lead to hell in the region.

Then, of course, there’s the focus on dialogue with the Taliban in Afghanistan, an outreach attempt that was welcomed by America’s potential interlocutors with an attack on the presidential compound in Kabul, possibly because they wanted the discussion to be conducted in bullet points.

Speaking of Snowden in New Delhi, Kerry wondered if the fugitive “chose China and Russia as assistants in his flight from justice because they’re such powerful bastions of internet freedom.”

Those may be valid points, but China and Russia are too busy thumbing their noses at the Obama administration to listen. As Snowden sheltered at the Sheremetyevo airport, Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, described America’s pleas and protests as “ravings and rubbish”.

Even as the United States cancelled Snowden’s passport, Ecuador provided him with a refugee travel document. America’s words have lost their resonance, just as the American president’s major speech on climate change was drowned out by overflying aircraft.

To lose its superpower status, the US didn’t need kryptonite, just crypto-Clintonism, diligently following the Jimmy Carter model that was so successful in Iran just about the time Hopscotch was released in theatres.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years

The views expressed by the author are personal.

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