Amid the wreckage that has been the Obama administration’s approach to dealing with anti-Western forces around the world, there remain two bright spots.
The first has been the generally effective use of drones to keep would-be attackers scurrying for hiding places; the second has been the principled refusal to pay ransoms for kidnapped Americans. This latter policy has kept our citizens (and citizens of the United Kingdom, whose government follows the same policy) from becoming cash-cow targets for extremists who fund themselves primarily by milking European hostages.
But now that a drone strike has killed two captives whose presence at an al-Qaida hideout was unknown to CIA targeters, the administration seems prepared to back off both of these productive policies. Humanitarian concerns are surely part of the new calculation but, as usual, the more obvious motivating factor is the president’s reputation. Anything that makes him go on television to take responsibility rather than credit, and for which he cannot blame a Republican-controlled Congress, immediately jumps to the top of the policymaking priority list.
Last week, President Obama expressed “profound regret” over the deaths of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, the hostages who were killed in January during an attack on a compound in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Aerial surveillance had led CIA analysts to conclude, incorrectly, that the compound did not house any civilians.
“It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and in our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes - sometimes deadly mistakes - can occur,” Obama said of the incident. The president has ordered a full review of the strikes that the administration disclosed last week.
This review does not necessarily mean the end of these sorts of counterterrorism operations, but that risk is present. While the loss of civilian life is undeniably tragic, there is also the matter of striking a balance between eliminating any risk of collateral damage and retaining the ability to take effective action based on reasonably sound intelligence.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., told The Washington Post, “To demand a higher standard of proof than they had here could be the end of these types of counterterrorism operations.” Schiff, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, went on to say, “This was not a case where there was an operation that went after the wrong compound, an innocent family. The tragedy here was that there were also innocent hostages, kept well concealed.”
As for the stance on ransom payments, the Obama administration once again seems to be shying away from a sensible policy at the risk of looking like the bad guy on an individual level. The White House ordered a study by the National Counterterrorism Center prompted, in part, by allegations leveled by the parents of journalist James Foley. Foley was murdered by the Islamic State group in 2014, and his parents subsequently told journalists that they had been threatened with prosecution if they took steps to ransom their son.
The administration was quick to backpedal against the Foleys’ allegations; Secretary of State John Kerry said he was “taken aback” by the news that the Foleys felt threatened by their own government. Now, in the aftermath of the incident and the study it triggered, senior officials have said that a new policy recommendation would prevent families of American hostages from being penalized for attempting to free them by paying ransoms. “There will be absolutely zero chance of any family member of an American held hostage overseas ever facing jail themselves, or even the threat of prosecution, for trying to free their loved ones,” an official told ABC News. The administration has not yet made a final decision on the recommendation.
While any individual with a shred of empathy will feel for the Foleys and other families, this proposed policy change will ultimately hurt Americans, not save them. Giving even tacit approval for ransom payments puts every American who travels abroad at risk. This is perhaps more true in Pakistan than anywhere else, in part because a lot of American residents - many who have family there - visit the country, and in part because ungoverned spaces like the tribal areas on the Afghan border provide perfect hideaways for those in the business of collecting ransoms. Even travelers sticking to locations in the heart of the country are hardly assured of Pakistani government protection and cooperation, as we saw when Osama bin Laden’s lair was uncovered less than 50 miles from the capital.
But there are militants all over the world, not only in Pakistan. There is no reason to believe that Americans will be immune from targeting in places like France or Italy, if the financial stakes are high enough. As we all know from the surge of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, militant-held territory in North Africa is not far from European shores.
The administration’s knee-jerk reaction to the loss of civilian life may be understandable, but it is foolhardy. Captives will always be collateral damage in wartime. Allied prisoners of war were sometimes killed during World War II bombing raids, as in one February 1945 incident when more than 20 died in an attack on Japanese facilities in Taiwan. Nobody gave a moment’s thought to stopping the war entirely to prevent those casualties. Nobody should have given it a moment’s thought, either.
Of course the families of hostages want everything possible done to retrieve their loved ones. Any of us would react the same way - understandably, but irrationally. That’s why we have governments, which are supposed to act in the interest of the greater good even when it hurts individual citizens. The blame for any personal losses that may result does not lie with governments that refuse to bend to kidnappers; it lies squarely with the kidnappers themselves.
There will probably be valuable lessons to be learned from the tragedy in Pakistan. If there are ways that we can do a better job locating captives, freeing them or targeting their captors without putting hostages at risk, of course we should pursue those means. But the lesson learned cannot be that you deal with kidnappers by paying them. That “solution” only creates more hostages. As we have seen off the coast of Somalia, you cut down on kidnappings by raising the costs, not by improving the rate of return on the kidnappers’ investments.