When it comes to national security, perception matters. Ultimately, American adversaries assess two things: America’s stated policies, and how those policies are pursued. From these assessments, our adversaries shape their perceptions of U.S. resolve and develop strategies to overcome it.
That’s why President Obama’s abandonment of longstanding U.S. hostage-negotiation policy is so problematic. The president says that the U.S. government will only communicate and facilitate hostage negotiations but not directly pay ransoms. But that’s a qualification without meaning. Again, perception is key. And the perception here, joined to reality, is that America is now willing to negotiate with terrorists. It’s another red line breached and another sign that intimidation finds reward. Whatever the administration might claim, today’s decision to allow U.S. officials to facilitate communications between terrorists and the families of hostages eviscerates America’s “no-negotiation” red line.
And that will hurt U.S. national security in two critical ways.
First, it will greatly incentivize the taking of American citizens as hostages. Until now, at least at a financial level, terrorist groups have long judged that kidnapping Americans was unprofitable. Indeed, as Rukmini Callmachi has reported, groups like al-Qaeda specifically target certain Europeans for kidnapping because they know ransoms will follow. As Callmachi puts it:
Of the 53 hostages known to have been taken by Qaeda’s official branches in the past five years, a third were French. And small nations like Austria, Spain and Switzerland, which do not have large expatriate communities in the countries where the kidnappings occur, account for over 20 percent of the victims. By contrast, only three Americans are known to have been kidnapped by Al Qaeda or its direct affiliates, representing just 5 percent of the total.
This isn’t some accident of recent history. And neither does it apply solely to al-Qaeda. Consider the Lebanese Hezbollah. In the 1980s, that group made a fetish out of kidnapping Americans. But facing increasing U.S. pressure, including direct-action (albeit often covert) responses, the group determined that the costs of taking American hostages outweighed the benefits. The group has largely held to this philosophy since then. The same is true with Iran. While Iran used proxies like Hezbollah to take U.S. hostages in the 1980s, because of U.S. reprisals it was not until the 2007 Karbala raid that Iran tested that strategy again. Seeking to pressure the United States into acquiescing to Iranian terrorism in Iraq, Iran kidnapped U.S. military personnel from a city meeting. When confronted by a U.S. rescue force, the hostage takers then executed their American prisoners.
But crucially, in response to the attack, President Bush did not back off. Instead, he unleashed the Joint Special Operations Command against Iranian intelligence, Quds Force, and special-groups teams. With its cost–benefit analysis changed, Iran backed off. (As a counterexample, Bush’s success in deterring Iran shows why President Obama’s refusal — even with clear intelligence reporting — to react to Iran’s 2011 Washington bomb plot was so disastrous: Iran no longer fears the United States.)
Again, the key point here is that deterrence posture has repeatedly proven crucial to mitigating the threat of hostage-taking against American civilians. Put simply: When a terrorist group judges that a French hostage will earn a million-dollar payday but an American hostage will earn a bullet to the head from a Delta Force operator, the cost–benefit analysis isn’t complicated. President Obama’s decision to allow de facto U.S. government negotiation with terrorists doesn’t just suggest America’s new willingness to pay ransoms. It suggests that military reprisals to hostage-taking are more unlikely.
But there’s another major problem with President Obama’s abandonment of red lines with respect to hostage negotiation: propaganda and morality.
This concern is especially pronounced with regards to Salafi-jihadist groups. Whereas the video brutality of groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) are seen as simple acts of evil, ISIS regards its murders as physical metaphors of ideology. In turn, ISIS’s proud subjugation of human life fuels its propaganda narrative of ordained domination and its purification of apostasy. This mythology of subjugation pervades ISIS murder videos.
#related#We’ve seen it repeatedly: a caged pilot burned alive, kneeling hostages beheaded, a leashed woman stoned to death in a hole, or, as in the latest ISIS video, caged prisoners drowned, or locked in a car and rocketed, or blown up by a daisy chain of neck bombs. Be under no illusions: These videos help the Islamic State recruit new fanatics to its banner. And however indirectly, by incentivizing these atrocities, we encourage our enemies to regard them as key strategic weapons. ISIS will look on President Obama’s statement as a great victory of brutality over American resolve.
This speaks to the ultimate human catastrophe here.
Whatever the incredible courage of Americans like James Foley, there’s no morality or strategic utility in negotiating with ideologically fanatical hostage takers. At a basic level, hostage payments to these groups are deferred death payments. At a strategic level, they’re invitations to attack.
In the long term, this policy change is likely to cost far more lives than it saves.