OTHERS SAY: Hostage-trading rarely ends well

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The kidnapping sprees that made international travel perilous for Americans back in the 1980s and 1990s have returned in force. Only this time, other governments are joining in taking American civilians prisoner on trumped-up charges and effectively holding them hostage for use in trades with Washington. This rarely ends well for any U.S. administration.

Even though the official position of the United States has been, for decades, that America doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, it negotiates all the time. Usually the process takes place in secrecy, far from the view of the news media and often without the hostages’ families knowing the extent of the negotiations.

The Biden administration felt particular pressure in the case of WNBA star Brittney Griner after her arrest for possessing a small amount of cannabis vaping oil when she had traveled to Russia, earning her a nine-year prison sentence. For months, the negotiations for her release centered on the release of Victor Bout, a convicted international arms dealer with significant blood on his hands. There was nothing even slightly even about this trade.

But even more frustrating was the fact that another American held by Russia for years, former Marine Paul Whelan, was not included in the deal. The Russian government is reportedly holding out for the release of Vadim Krasikov, who is a convicted assassin.

This same kind of trading and negotiating has gone on for decades, including the Iran-contra hostages-for-arms deal that fell apart during the Reagan administration. After Colombia became infamous as the kidnapping capital of the world in the 1990s, business boomed for companies whose only job was to negotiate terms for a hostage’s release. Kidnap-and-ransom insurance policies became standard for companies doing business in Colombia, El Salvador, Venezuela and Ecuador. The more these exchanges took on the appearance of a routine business deal, the more kidnappings occurred.

The American civilians swept up by this cruel game have every right to appeal for compassion and help. But if civilians go into hostile territory they should know the risks ahead of time. And if the U.S. policy going forward will be that no further such negotiated trades will take place, the government has to mean it. Americans in those places need to receive the sternest of warnings: You are on your own.

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