The headline above comes from Professor Groucho Marx, who understood the real world better than some of our deepest thinkers.
There’s a lot of confusion and anxiety out there, and in the interests of sound mental health I’m offering to unravel some of the mental knots we tend to get tied up in whenever the subject of hostages comes up. They’re often linked together, so the therapy might be a bit complicated. The best way to approach this unpretty task is via the conventional wisdom, starting with…
1. America shouldn’t pay ransom for the freedom of hostages
There are several American hostages in enemy claws. There’s the USAID worker in Cuba, a priest, a former Marine, maybe a former FBI special agent, and the Washington Post‘s man in Tehran, etcetera etcetera. Then there are locals who got caught working for us (more later). What to do?
As the knowledgeable and very sensible Max Boot writes in the Wall Street Journal, we’ve long paid ransom. Washington and Jefferson and both Roosevelts did it. Reagan, Bush and Obama did it (and Obama’s probably still doing it). Some of the ransoms were cash, others were “in kind,” whether breaking our own arms embargo (Reagan) or releasing terrorists from Gitmo (Obama).
But we, and the Brits (who also pay), claim that we don’t pay ransoms. Max thinks that’s good policy, since paying, which most of the world does (both countries and private citizens fork over the money when it’s money), just guarantees that kidnappers will continue to take hostages.
Easily said, and very commonsensical. But there are hostages, and then there are other hostages. When American government officers — whether diplomats, uniformed military, CIA, FBI, DEA, Peace Corps, or USAID — are captured, don’t we owe them every possible effort to free them? Experience suggests that ransom works, while negotiation often fails. What then?
For those hostages, every government with which I’m familiar has paid and will continue to pay, and I’m not so sure it’s the wrong policy. As so often in real life, it all depends. Sometimes the matter gets pretty fuzzy, as with the Bergdahl case, in which CENTCOM reportedly paid a ransom to an intermediary believed to be in touch with the hostage holders. That money came from a slush fund used to pay for information. I can well imagine that the payment was described in just those terms. That the payment also might have sprung an American hostage was an additional component of a complex deal. Was it a violation of principle? Or not?
Remember your Groucho: forget about general principles, because there aren’t any that will always apply. Different cases require different principles. If we insist on having just one set of principles, we’ll end up thwarting ourselves with unnecessary frequency.
2. The best chance for success is to let the government deal quietly. Publicity is dangerous to the captive.
I detest this approach. I think we’re usually better off making a big stink about it. Most of our enemies hate being exposed, and most of the world deplores hostage-taking. I thought the White House had the right idea when it revealed that President Obama had discussed American hostages during his telephone chat with Iran’s President Rouhani, and I was disappointed when the press failed to press the issue.
I don’t think secret negotiations help most hostages. Au contraire, they shield the hostage holders from public condemnation, and make it easier for them to maltreat the prisoners. We should have learned a basic Holocaust lesson: prisoners in Nazi camps who regularly received mail and presents had a better survival rate than those who didn’t. Lesson: even for the most evil, it’s harder to oppress and kill faceless captives than those whose destiny is of obvious concern to those outside. When Secretary of State George Shultz regularly showed up at international meetings, carrying — and reciting — lists of political prisoners in the Soviet Union, the Kremlin hated it. And their useful idiots in America protested to our government. “You’re just making things worse,” they said. “Don’t put Gorbachev’s back against a wall,” they lectured.
But it had two positive effects: it led to freedom for many dissidents, and it gave hope and courage to the would-be victims.
Secrecy strengthens the kidnappers, while our goal should be the release of the hostages. Going public, denouncing the evil regimes and/or groups that have kidnapped our people, weakens the hostage-holders.
3. What About American spies?
Once they’re captured, the prime motive for secrecy — to increase chances for the success of the mission — ceases to exist. At present there are close to three dozen people in Iranian prisons, all accused of espionage for CIA. I don’t know if the charges are true, however I do know that an American CIA officer was arrested at the same time, interrogated, and incarcerated. After a while the USG either paid or arranged payment of a million dollars or so, and after a couple of false steps the agent came back to America. I have provided details of this case to several celebrated “investigative journalists,” complete with the agent’s travel records, passport, and relevant court orders, but so far none of them has written about it. I think we should have publicly demanded the release of the agent, and if the unlucky people in jail were part of the same operation — as I have been told — we should publicly lobby for their release too.
I think we owe them. I don’t think we are wrong to conduct espionage against Iran or our numerous other enemies, and I think we’d do better if we were seen to stand by them, noisily and constantly, if they are captured.
Yes, there will be exceptions. If outing the spies guarantees a death sentence, for example, the rules of secrecy undoubtedly apply. But snoopers deserve the full force of official support. They’ll live longer.
I hope you feel better now.