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January 15, 2023

This article first appeared in the American Spectator Magazine: )

By: John C Wohlstetter, Senior Fellow

President Biden’s swap of a birdbrain basketball celebrity who refused to come out of the locker room for the playing of the national anthem—whom, risibly, he called “the best of America”—for the world’s most notorious, brutal arms dealer, who openly declared in 2008 to the informants who were to turn him in, that he was “very eager and anxious to carry out this arms deal to kill Americans,” has given the “Merchant of Death” a chance to resume operations, this time working hand in glove with the Russians. Here is a detailed account of how Bout was taken down. The eleven years he spent in prison gives him that much more motivation to pursue his murderous design. Bout has already volunteered to help Russia in Ukraine.

Hostage-taking by our enemies can be a profitable business, one America all too rarely avoids. It is thus more accurate to regard these episodes as did ABC News after the Nov. 4, 1979 seizure of 52 American hostages at their Embassy in Tehran, ordered by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. ABC began its news coverage on Nov. 8, titling it The Iran Crisis—America Held Hostage. Originally hosted by ABC World News Tonight anchor Frank Reynolds as a 20-minute special, it became a half-hour Monday through Thursday show hosted by emerging media superstar Ted Koppel; after a few days with Koppel, a producer had the idea of affixing the number of days of captivity, with the day number increasing with each weekday show. During 1980 the program was renamed Nightline. In all, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, named after an American hostage executed by ISIS Syria, 60 Americans are held captive, in various places around the world. The Richardson Center, a hostage-recovery operation founded by former Clinton UN ambassador Bill Richardson, was involved in the Bout-Griner swap. In 2015 then-president Obama established the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

ABC had the right idea with its initial title: America was being held hostage. President Carter, who had coined the term “Rose Garden Strategy” in 1976, having then accused president Ford of hiding in the Rose Garden instead of campaigning, pursued his own Rose Garden strategy, ostensibly because he had to remain at the White House so long as the hostages remained in captivity. The hostages finally won their freedom on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 1981, their plane departing Tehran as president Reagan delivered his Inaugural Address; ex-president Carter greeted them upon their arrival in then-West Germany. Simultaneously, Iranian financial assets were unfrozen and sanctions lifted, per the Algiers Accord.

These episodes were part of a mostly dismal history that went back centuries. In 2015 TAS published my article, From Barbary to the Gulf: Corsairs Then and Now. As I noted than, Barbary corsairs had begun their marauding ways in the 12th century; the first American ship taken as a prize on the high seas was by pirates, in 1625. During the early years of the American republic the fledging United States paid ransom to various potentates in North Africa. It was left to James Madison to restore America’s honor by sending Commodores Stephen Decatur and William Bainbridge to defeat the pirates in 1815. Envoys who begged bandits to release hostages were rebuffed with open contempt; but when there was a credible threat of military force they capitulated. As Frederick the Great once quipped: “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.”

Thus, Teddy Roosevelt, who obtained release of an American businessman by threatening military action, fared better than presidents of both parties who either did not threaten force, or, tried using military force but failed.

Which tees up the main question: Is there a way to escape this dilemma?

The good news is that there are indeed ways that would bid fair to resolve the dilemma; the bad news is that it is doubtful that modern democratic governments have the intestinal fortitude to carry out a no-ransom policy.

Alas, even resolute democratic leaders may face irresistible political pressure to pay tribute. In addition to the danger facing hostages in captivity, there is intense media pressure, in the form of giving air time to family members who plead for action to obtain release of loved ones. The obvious counter-argument—releasing hostages only encourages our enemies to take more hostages in the future—cannot compete with hyper-sentimental videos of desperate families. What would we do if one or more hostages are seized by Libyan jihadists, who demand that we release the Lockerbie bomb-builder we now have in custody pending trial for mass murder? Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo added that the Griner swap gives incentives for hostage-takers to seize more celebrities.

The quintessential example, ironically, involves Israel, which is far more consistently resolute than any other civilized nation in conducting counter-terror policies. In 2006 Palestinian terrorists kidnapped Israel soldier Gilead Shalit in a cross-border raid, and held him for five years. To obtain his release Israel released 1,027 terrorists, who had been responsible for 569 deaths (no number is offered for injuries they caused). Prime Minister Netanyahu came under irresistible pressure from the media and the Israeli public to win Shalit’s release.

A contrary historical example comes from the annals of former Soviet Union. In 1986, Shia Muslim terrorists kidnapped four Soviet diplomats, demanding that the Soviets prevent pro-Syrian militias from attacking them. When the Soviets demurred, the militants executed one of the captives, shooting him in the head and dumping his body in the streets. The Soviets sent in KGB agents; they kidnapped and killed a relative who was a Hezbollah leader, and mailed body parts to the original kidnapper. Surprise, surprise: the kidnapping of Soviet diplomats in Lebanon stopped.

No Western country can do this, no matter how brutally effective such action would be.

So, what is left?

1. Swap only equivalents. During the Cold War the U.S. swapped Russian spy Rudolf Abel for downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Abel was a spy, but not a top international terrorist. This can only work with a genuinely resolute administration in power—hardly the case now.

2. Freeze financial assets and impose economic sanctions. This can work against weak regimes, but rarely works well against strong regimes.

3. Prepare a list of high-risk countries: (a) whose governments have taken hostages in the past; or (b) where hostile non-state actors reside—e.g., Mexican drug cartels. We could conduct military operations against them, aimed at freeing hostages, killing captors, or both. These have worked from time to time, but it is hard to see this administration act so decisively. It tolerates cartels running migrants under indentured servitude into the U.S., and allows vast quantities of China-made ultra- lethal fentanyl to be sent across our largely undefended border.

4. Declare that hostage-taking creates a juridical state of war. This does not mean we start a shooting war, but would free us to take a broader range of actions. However, democratic publics are uneasy with this. Their civilized yearning for peace would resist this course of action.

So, swaps continue. Recently, Ukraine reportedly made a 65-prisoner swap with the Russians, involving prisoners detained in Russian-occupied territory of Ukraine; an American was one of the hostages the Russians released. Ukraine released doz