Diplomacy and the theatre of absurd

Now it's getting really serious.

Now it's getting really serious. The American ambassador to France can't even hold a July 4 garden party without an upstart French minister dressing him down before hundreds of invited guests over the Snowden revelations and the extent to which Washington has the world wired.

When ambassador Charles Rivkin booked French Interior Minister Manuel Valls as guest of honour, he was not to know that by the time his American Independence Day fete came around, there would be global tut-tutting over the disclosures by fugitive former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who has been hunkering in a Moscow transit lounge for the past two weeks.

But Valls also serves as France's top security official. So as guests nursed their champagne flutes, he gave it to the American ambassador, telling him: "In the name of our friendship, we owe each other honesty. We must say things clearly, directly, frankly."

This is classic "tut-tutting", a diplomatic art form that requires important people to speak in high dudgeon at the height of national or global dramas, in the knowledge that they will not do much else - think of much of the European response to Snowden's leaking of Washington's secrets.

Then there is the inverted tut-tut, which requires the speaker to take a position diametrically opposed to what he practises - think of the Chinese and Russian leaders' defence of rights and liberties vis-a-vis Snowden. And there is the teasing tut-tut, hinting you might do something when you know you will not - think of the Bolivian, Ecuadorian and Venezuelan leaders with their praise for Snowden and their tongue-in-cheek suggestions that they might give him refuge.

Perhaps most dangerous of all is the reverse-tut-tut - seeming indifference, in an attempt to mask fury and a determination to nail the cause of the initial tut-tutting, which in this case is Washington's efforts to snatch Snowden and have him brought back to the US to face espionage charges.

Touring Africa early in the week, Barack Obama was quite good at the reverse TT: "I'm not going to be scrambling jets for a 29-year-old hacker." But then came the bizarre pursuit of Bolivian leader Evo Morales. In Moscow for a conference, Morales had delivered a teasing TT: he answered, "Yes, why not?" when asked if Bolivia might shelter Snowden. That seemingly was enough for Washington to conclude that Snowden was on Morales' presidential jet as he departed Moscow for La Paz on Tuesday.

A permit to transit French airspace was withdrawn minutes before the plane was due to enter that sector; and previously issued permission to fly over Portugal, Spain and Italy was withdrawn. Morales was obliged to backtrack to Vienna where his aircraft was searched by local authorities looking for Snowden. Even the Spanish ambassador to Austria reportedly turned up on the tarmac, trying for a sticky-beak.

In a midnight press conference in La Paz, Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera claimed that the highly unusual rerouting of Morales' aircraft amounted to "kidnapping by imperialism".

The treatment of Morales provoked outrage in South America, which amounted to a lot of tut-tutting, to the extent that none of the leaders that might have been expected to extend a hand to Snowden did so - Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba in particular.

Similarly, none of the European victims of the American espionage web revealed by Snowden have put up a hand to offer Snowden asylum.

In an intriguing sideshow, there is the role of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who for more than a year has been operating from the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden and, possibly, from there to the US. Snowden's father and Ecuadorian officials have been openly critical of Assange's larger-than-life participation in the saga.

This week's collision of tut-tuts coincides with signs that having had its fun with Snowden, Moscow now is becoming impatient. Early in the week, President Vladimir Putin said that Snowden could have asylum, but only if he agreed to stop causing difficulties for Washington; and on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that after squatting at Sheremetyevo International Airport for 11 days, Snowden should find another country in which to seek refuge.

Snowden neatly managed his exit from Hong Kong, with local authorities apparently stalling on an extradition request from Washington while he cleared out of the former British colony. But he'll be unnerved if ordered by Moscow to hoof it, after this week's dramatic display of a willingness by countries in the region to co-operate with Washington's efforts to interdict him.

Combined, there is something of the theatre of the absurd in all the tut-tutting over Snowden because the likes of Russia and Europe have much bigger deals in play with the US than the fate of one guy who decided to bomb himself out of the water.

More troubling for some observers than the breadth of US surveillance at home and abroad is the blanket of secrecy under which it operates - including secret, classified court rulings.

Americans, for the most, follow the manhunt story in much the same way as they became mesmerised by the O.J. Simpson car chase. But as the New York sage Frank Rich observed this week, there are people who care about the issue on both sides of US politics, but "the vast middle seems to be indifferent - in part, I think, because we're so used to surrendering our privacy, whether it be to social networking or commerce sites".

Obama's blase "we're all spying on each other" suggestion that the intelligence services of the world monitor his breakfast choices, was more an evasion than an invitation to the serious national debate he says America needs to have.

More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks served as a licence for the security establishment to do pretty well anything, the post-September 11 national security state is still asking for the trust of the people.

But when the National Security Agency trusted Edward Snowden with its most closely held secrets and seem to have accepted at face value a tip-off from God knows who that the President of Bolivia was smuggling Snowden halfway around the globe in his presidential jet ...?

Writing at Slate.com, Farhad Manjoo observed: "The scandal isn't just that the government is spying on us. It's also that it's giving guys like Snowden keys to the spying program.

"It suggests the worst combination of overreach and amateurishness, of power leveraged by incompetence. The Keystone Cops are listening to us all."

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