Biden’s terrible hostage policy 

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By Ambassador John Bolton

This article was first published in the Washington Examiner on December 12, 2022. Click Here to read the original article.

The Biden administration’s portrayal of trading convicted Russian agent-provocateur Viktor Bout for basketball star Brittney Griner highlights the central error of quid pro quo hostage deals. President Joe Biden’s misguided triumphalism incentivizes hostile governments, rogue states, and terrorists to calculate the benefits of seizing U.S. citizens as bargaining chips, pawns in their larger strategies. 

Humanitarian concern for wrongfully detained Americans is entirely justified, but such concerns should not generate policies putting more citizens at risk. Presidents must consider larger national security priorities, most importantly the even-more compelling humanitarian imperative to shut down hostage-taking as a profitable enterprise. That Washington’s record in handling human extortion has been imperfect is no reason to abandon our strategic aim to protect citizens worldwide under the civis Americanus sum principle, derived from ancient Rome. 

In 1985, Ronald Reagan said clearly and concisely: “America will never make concessions to terrorists — to do so would only invite more terrorism. Nor will we ask nor pressure any other government to do so. Once we head down that path, there would be no end to it, no end to the suffering of innocent people, no end to the bloody ransom all civilized nations must pay.” Reagan himself allowed his policy to be violated, seeking to ransom U.S. hostages in Lebanon, with deeply negative consequences for the country and his presidency. Unfortunately, the subsequent tragedy of continued hostage-taking is the best evidence Reagan was right the first time. 

It is one thing for the U.S. to engage in explicit spy-for-spy exchanges, similar to the long-recognized legitimacy of prisoner-of-war exchanges. It is something quite different, however, to enter quid pro quo arrangements to obtain the release of unjustly seized Americans, whether by hostage swaps, ransoms, or any other compensation to the hostage-takers. First, it demonstrates globally that Washington is willing to deal, in the “right” circumstances, and that there is no issue in principle to buying back U.S. citizens, only a question of the price. Second, the circumstances of seized Americans differ widely. Some have simply acted foolishly, straying too close to the borders of rogue states such as Iran and North Korea and being captured by their security forces. Others have given hostile governments a pretext by committing small offenses that their captors exploit (Griner’s case and Marc Fogel’s, also held by Russia, who has received almost no public attention). Some may actually be engaged in espionage and unlucky enough to be caught. Treating the full range of possibilities as fungible only encourages hostile actors to claim that all those seized are spies, thus upping the price for returning truly innocent Americans like Paul Whelan. 

Heedless of the compelling prudential arguments against quid pro quo exchanges and instead expanding on prior ill-advised exceptions, the Biden administration has dramatically altered fundamental U.S. hostage policy. The White House complains about the growth of “hostage diplomacy,” but its own far-reaching repudiations of Reagan’s principles are important contributing causes. Biden’s appeasement policy first manifested itself by releasing Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou from Canadian extradition proceedings, thereby allowing her to return to China. In exchange for this surrender, Beijing released two Canadians it had unjustly seized. No wonder Russia thought it, too, could profit from this expanding human souk, seizing Griner just days before it invaded Ukraine. The Department of Justice argued unsuccessfully not to settle with Meng, and it lost again over the Bout-Griner swap. 

As bad as the new Biden policy is, the White House and its supporters have compounded their error, thereby inviting new and even more-creative hostage-taking, by the way they have characterized Griner and the rationale for capitulating on Bout. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that “Brittney is more than an athlete, more than an Olympian. She is an important role model and inspiration to millions of Americans, particularly the LGBTQI+ Americans and women of color.” Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson described Griner as an “icon” and a “hero,” words echoed by commentator Van Jones. 

These improvident statements effectively tell governments and terrorists considering seizing Americans as bargaining chips who the ideal targets are during Biden’s presidency. The president and his advisers are suckers for the right target. Even worse, all this boasting raises the price for other still-incarcerated Americans who are not “icons.” Whelan and Fogel are, at this very moment, unfortunate cases in point. Where are the politically powerful interest groups lobbying Biden for their release? And if it took conceding Bout to free Griner, what is the price for Whelan, Fogel, and other American hostages around the world? Obviously, much higher than a week ago. 

Unquestionably, Washington needs to do a far better job of deterrence and punishment against hostage-talking generally. But one thing is certain: As long as the bazaar for U.S. citizens is open, any number of our country’s most ruthless enemies will be ready to bargain. 

John Bolton was the national security adviser to former President Donald Trump between 2018 and 2019. Between 2005 and 2006, he was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.