The lim­its of help for hostages

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion couldn’t spell it out, but here’s the best ad­vice for Amer­i­cans: Stay out of the world’s dan­ger zones.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Aaron David Miller Aaron David Miller, a vice pres­i­dent at the Woodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Scholars, served as a Mid­dle East ne­go­tia­tor in Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions. He is the au­thor of “The End of Great­ness: Why Amer­ica Ca

Don’t put your­self in harm’s way. That would have been the best ad­vice Pres­i­dent Obama could have given to Amer­i­cans on Wed­nes­day when he an­nounced his pres­i­den­tial di­rec­tive and ex­ec­u­tive or­der on hostage- tak­ing.

He didn’t say it be­cause it’s po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect, tan­ta­mount to a sur­ren­der to ter­ror­ism. Some might even ar­gue that it’s dis­re­spect­ful to the mem­o­ries of those brave Amer­i­cans who as jour­nal­ists and aid work­ers tried to re­port on conf lict ar­eas and as­sist those caught up in them.

But it’s com­mon sense and sound ad­vice in what prom­ises to be a very long war against Is­lamic State and other ter­ror­ist groups. These groups will con­tinue to look at Amer­i­cans, in uni­form and out, as the most de­sir­able and high­pro­file tar­gets and will ex­pend great ef­fort to cap­ture them.

The pres­i­dent’s new pol­icy is a rea­son­able ef­fort on a very sen­si­tive is­sue, but it doesn’t change the tra­di­tional U. S. stance. It is more about process than sub­stance. The in­ter­a­gency Hostage Re­cov­ery In­fu­sion Cell cre­ated by the di­rec­tive would pre­sum­ably of­fer a more co­or­di­nated ap­proach within the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. The ad­min­is­tra­tion will ex­pend greater ef­forts to in­ter­act with hostage fam­i­lies and take their con­cerns more se­ri­ously. The pres­i­dent told the fam­i­lies, “We’re not go­ing to aban­don you. We will stand by you.” The di­rec­tive also as­sures them that the gov­ern­ment will not pros­e­cute those who seek their own av­enues — in­clud­ing pay­ing a ran­som — to free their loved ones.

So what’s re­ally new? Not much. The ad­min­is­tra­tion stayed within its tra­di­tional pa­ram­e­ters on the broad pol­icy is­sues re­lated to not mak­ing con­ces­sions to ter­ror­ist groups. The pres­i­dent did say the gov­ern­ment could com­mu­ni­cate with hostage- tak­ers to gain in­for­ma­tion and to pro­tect fam­i­lies from be­ing de­frauded in any per­sonal ef­forts.

Com­mu­ni­cat­ing is an in­trigu­ing choice of words and might im­ply some form of ne­go­ti­a­tion. The pres­i­dent did not de­fine in much de­tail what those com­mu­ni­ca­tions might en­tail or whether the gov­ern­ment would fa­cil­i­tate per­sonal ef­forts by fam­i­lies to ne­go­ti­ate re­leases. The di­rec­tive does al­low third par­ties such as the Red Cross to par­tic­i­pate in ne­go­ti­a­tions.

One thing is un­mis­tak­ably clear. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has no in­ten­tion of ac­tively fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of sev­eral Euro­pean gov­ern­ments that have gained the re­lease of their na­tion­als by pay­ing ran­soms. The di­rec­tive states that U. S. pol­icy will con­tinue “to deny hostage- tak­ers the ben­e­fits of ran­som, pris­oner re­leases, pol­icy changes, or other acts of con­ces­sion.”

Repub­li­cans were quick to register their con­cern that even com­mu­ni­cat­ing with ter­ror­ists might put the U. S. on a slip­pery slope. House Speaker John A. Boehner said that, while he hadn’t seen the di­rec­tive, “We have had a pol­icy in the United States for over 200 years of not pay­ing ran­som and not ne­go­ti­at­ing with ter­ror­ists, and the con­cern that I have is that by lift­ing that long- held prin­ci­ple you could be en­dan­ger­ing more Amer­i­cans here and over­seas.”

The fact is there are quite a few ex­am­ples of the U. S. ne­go­ti­at­ing with ter­ror­ists in­di­rectly and di­rectly, most no­tably the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to se­cure the re­lease of Amer­i­can hostages taken by Iran. The speaker may well be con­cerned that the U. S. might do it again.

There were oth­ers in Congress who were also dis­ap­pointed that the di­rec­tive didn’t cre­ate a hostage czar to cut through gov­ern­ment red tape.

“There needs to be a sin­gle per­son si­t­u­ated above the fu­sion cell, with the au­thor­ity nec­es­sary to di­rect cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties, iso­late turf bat­tles and stream­line the bu­reau­cracy. The FBI is not or­ga­nized or de­vel­oped for hostage re­cov­ery in hos­tile ar­eas, yet they are lead­ing the fu­sion cell,” Rep. Dun­can Hunter ( R- Alpine) said.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­view of its pol­icy on hostages came un­der duress as fam­i­lies com­plained bit­terly about what hadn’t been done to gain the re­lease of their loved ones. The pres­i­dent ad­mit­ted that his ad­min­is­tra­tion hadn’t done nearly enough: “There have been times where our gov­ern­ment, re­gard­less of good in­ten­tions, has let [ fam­i­lies] down.”

But these changes will not be enough to ad­dress the ba­sic prob­lem. Noth­ing re­ally will. There’s been a 148% in­crease in the num­ber of terror- re­lated deaths world­wide be­tween 2010 and 2014. And though few Amer­i­cans have been vic­tims, the prob­lem will con­tinue and U. S. cit­i­zens will re­main very high- value tar­gets.

The di­rec­tive didn’t spell it out, but it’s clear how lim­ited U. S. op- tions re­ally are. With the di­rec­tive, Washington will do a bet­ter job of co­or­di­nat­ing pol­icy and reach­ing out to fam­i­lies, and in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions could even at­tempt res­cue mis­sions with spe­cial forces. But there will be no U. S. con­ces­sions in money, pol­icy or pris­oner trades for those Amer­i­cans un­lucky enough to be taken hostage. What might hap­pen should U. S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel be taken hostage by a group such as Is­lamic State is another mat­ter. That might well lead to some quid pro quo, per­haps in­volv­ing some kind of a pris­oner ex­change.

Obama couldn’t and would never say it, but he prob­a­bly was think­ing it: The best way to avoid be­ing taken hostage is to avoid putting your­self in these dan­ger zones to be­gin with. Amer­i­cans have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the per­sonal choices they make in these dan­ger zones. That may be down­right unAmer­i­can to say out loud, but it’s still the safe and smart choice when it comes to Is­lamic State­con­trolled ar­eas.

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