ABC The Drum
President Barack Obama has announced that the US government will communicate with hostage takers, but this is more about increasing transparency than breaking from the past, writes
For anyone who has a penchant for Hollywood blockbusters, the phrase "we don't negotiate with terrorists" might sound very familiar. It has often been uttered in situations that usually involve government officials refusing to be blackmailed by villains.
This is a case of art imitating life, given that in the past three decades, successive US governments have tended to broadly subscribe to this principle, albeit with many notable exceptions.
It was Ronald Reagan in 1985 who famously stated, "America will never make concessions to terrorists — to do so would only invite more terrorism — nor will we ask nor pressure any other government to do so."
A decade later, the Clinton administration issued a fact sheet on international terrorism saying that the US government would not "pay ransom, release prisoners, change its policies or agree to other acts that might encourage additional terrorism".
The current US president echoed Reagan today in saying that there will be "no concessions" offered to those who hold hostages. However, Barack Obama's newly announced presidential directive and executive order make a departure from the previous principle of not communicating and negotiating with captors holding Americans, or helping family members who seek to make concessions.
The impetus for policy change is two-fold. Firstly, the emergence of Islamic State and the widely publicised cases of James Foley's, Steven Sotloff's and Abdul-Rahman Kassig's executions have put the US government's response into the spotlight. The families of American hostages have publicly criticised the government's handling of their cases. They complained they were being excluded from the process of recovering their family members, and sometimes even bullied and intimidated by government officials.
Secondly, the US policy has been in stark contrast to some of its European allies, who have regularly engaged in paying ransom to retrieve their nationals. France, Spain, Italy and Germany have all reportedly made such payments in the recent past. This was an obvious insult to an already heavy injury that the relatives and friends of US hostages had to endure.
The reactions to the decision to overhaul the policy came swiftly after Obama made the announcement. Predictably, Republican hawks came after the president in full force. House Speaker John Boehner exclaimed that the US "have had a policy 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".
However, the long history of US dealings with various criminal groups and rogue states in this kind of scenario tends to counter Boehner's statement. Nixon, Carter, and most infamously Reagan have all engaged in some form of negotiations with hostage takers and offered concessions. This has continued well after the Cold War, and one just has to remember last year's prisoner swap involving Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and the controversy it raised.
Moreover, even the ransom paying can be subject to interpretation and a bit sketchy, as there are numerous loopholes and tools democratic governments may use to 'persuade' the other side to reach the favourable outcome. Without the need to get conspiratorial about the under-the-table deals, there are lucrative government 'carrots' such as the US Department of State's "Rewards for Justice Program". While the funds from this program cannot explicitly be used to pay ransom, they can hypothetically be used to pay informants, who may or may not be affiliated with the hostage takers.
While some have described this policy directive as a broad overhaul, it should rather be viewed through the prism of "more of the same — only public", with some organisational changes. Namely, Obama's move is intended to make the process of retrieving American hostages more transparent, as the communication with hostage takers was previously an unspoken practice, as well as better coordinated, in order to ensure consistency and coherence within and among federal agencies and departments.
To that effect, we will see the creation of an "interagency fusion cell", which in bureaucratic parlance stands for a body that essentially acts as a coordinator of efforts made by different segments of the executive branch. While this is a notable organisational reform, some have already criticised the lack of a "hostage czar", stating that it would be better to have a single person responsible for the implementation of the US policies.
Regarding the potential for more attacks as a result of allowing US hostage families to pay ransoms, the proper criteria to use would be to compare whether countries that allow for such payments have been asymmetrically targeted. My guess would be that any Westerner that finds herself in areas where lawlessness prevails has a high likelihood of being kidnapped. American citizens have generally been targeted, as some militant groups tend to harbour strong anti-American sentiment.
Finally, as we have seen with the IS, it is arguably worse if the groups are not motivated solely by money, but rather tend to use hostage taking and public executions as part of the propaganda to demonstrate their might. In those cases, the official pleas and family money do not suffice. This is why the pundits should not lose sight of the bigger picture — the overall strategy to prevent the taking of hostages in the first place.
This article was originally published at ABC The Drum