Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who waxes hawkish on military and other foreign policy issues, often adds a useful counterbalance to the Obama administration.
But the senator’s suggestion Tuesday that the United States boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia to protest in the event Russia grants asylum to Edward Snowden, who has leaked top secret NSA documents, is a bad idea. Fortunately, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who agrees with Sen. Graham on many foreign policy matters, doesn’t think much of this idea. Said Sen. McCain: “There’s many things we can do, but I think the experience of canceling the Olympics the last time wasn’t very good.”
The “last time” the United States boycotted the Olympics was in 1980, when the Olympics were in the Soviet Union. Politics was the issue then as well. The United States and more than 60 other countries boycotted the Moscow Games to protest the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Largely in response, the U.S.S.R. boycotted the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles. Another boycott, involving 22 African nations and linked with apartheid, weakened the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Sen. Graham’s notion of sitting out the Winter Games in Sochi to demonstrate disapproval of Russia for the Snowden affair and for its support of Iran and other nations with whom U.S. relations are chilly is both counterproductive and petty.
No other country is likely to join the United States; many countries, including some of our allies, are still upset at the United States because some of the data Mr. Snowden released cast a spotlight on U.S. spying on friendly governments and on the private communications of their citizens.
Further, the absence of U.S. athletes, who are improving and competitive in many winter sports, would diminish the accomplishments of athletes from all nations, and in the process further diminish respect for the United States throughout the world.
Sen. Graham compared the propaganda coup Russia can reap from the Sochi Olympics to the showcase that the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. “I’m not saying that Russia is Nazi Germany, but I am saying that the Russian government is empowering some of the most evil, hateful people in the world.”
That was true before anyone had heard of Mr. Snowden, and it will almost certainly be true after the Snowden affair fades away. But sitting out the Olympics would hurt the United States at least as much as it would hurt Russia.
A better idea would be to field as powerful an Olympic team as possible, compete intensely and honorably and steal some of the spotlight Russia seeks — the way Jesse Owens did on the track in Berlin in 1936.