Col. James L. Abrahamson, USA (ret.), Ph.D.
In “How Somali Pirates Could Take Obama Hostage,” Professor Dominic Tierney advises President Barack Obama how to respond should terrorists make hostages of Americans sent abroad in service of the nation or serving on board merchant ships flying the flag of the United States.
Americans, Mr. Tierney claims, care too deeply about the capture of a fellow citizen. Out of what he describes as profound idealism, they quickly make a hero out of a captive, and their moral outrage prompts them to demand freedom for the captive and punishment of the captors. Because a captive’s continued detention seems to challenge the nation’s international reputation for resolve and credibility, Americans also feel personally humiliated and demand that their presidents take prompt action to free the hostage and punish the evil-doers responsible.
Some might regard those feelings as virtues – a society’s commitment to those who, in its service, go to places of danger abroad, a widespread belief that every American life has value, and compelling evidence that decades of secure prosperity have not made Americans too effete to defend their cultural and national interests when challenged by international criminals.
From personal experience, I know of the armed forces’ open-ended commitment to rescue every downed aviator, locate every missing sailor, and leave no wounded or even dead Soldier or Marine on the field of battle – even if that means putting lives at risk. Nor is that commitment of little consequence; it is part of the tie that binds members of the armed forces to one another and gives them confidence in their leadership. Whether members of the Foreign Service and the CIA feel the same way, I have no relevant experience. I nevertheless well imagine that they do and that they would expect as much from their leaders.
In Mr. Tierney’s hands, those feelings and commitments represent not virtues but threats to Mr. Obama’s presidency. Should he follow the example of his predecessors and leave no stone unturned to recover even the nation’s dead, the professor asserts, the president may become distracted from more important matters or even hastily undertake a poorly planned rescue mission, such as President Jimmy Carter’s, whose failure might discredit him.
To avoid that, the professor proposes that the president manipulate and minimize the public reaction to any hostage taking, avoid personal emotional involvement, refuse to meet with the families of hostages, prepare the public to tolerate long-term captivity, and avoid “pressing the idealistic, retributive, or reputational [sic] buttons in the American psyche.” In WWII, the professor tells readers, the Soviet Union regarded as “traitors” all members of the Red Army captured by the Germans, and the North Vietnamese showed indifference to the fate of its soldiers held in the Republic of Vietnam – behavior he regards as a source of strength.
I urge the professor to get out more. His CV suggests that he has spent a great deal of time in the archives and the upper reaches of liberal academe, and he might therefore profit from spending some time in the company of those who risk their lives in service of their country and also rub shoulders with a greater cross-section of his fellow countrymen – where he might also assess the ability of any president to change their views on hostage taking. He might learn that those in national service as well as their fellow countrymen expect of their president something quite different than what the professor suggests. I say “thank goodness” that neither the public nor the media are likely to tolerate such presidential indifference to the plight of American hostages.
From his research, Mr. Tierney seems not to have learned that the federal government is a huge organization fully capable of doing many things at the same time, whatever “distractions” might arise. Nor are all rescue missions doomed to failure. The Special Forces executing the 1970 Son Tay raid on a North Vietnamese compound that until a few days before had held American POWs traveled several miles over enemy territory, remained on the ground only 29 minutes, killed fifty North Vietnamese guards, and suffered not a single U.S. casualty. To everyone’s regret, the prisoners had been moved days before the attempt. Even so the raid proved a rescue could be done – if supported by good intelligence, appropriate equipment, trained personnel, careful planning, and sufficient rehearsal. Carter’s failed attempt is no valid analogy because it lacked those qualities.
Other events also suggest that raids and retribution can succeed: The Israeli Defense Force’s 1976 raid on Uganda’s Entebbe airport, where Palestinian and German terrorists threatened to kill all the hostages on a high-jacked Air France plane if Israel did not release 40 jailed Palestinian terrorists, rescued the hostages with only a few deaths. That Israel eventually tracked down and killed those responsible for the murder of their athletes competing in the Munich Olympics also made the point that international criminals cannot always count on avoiding punishment for their misdeeds.Should the president follow Mr. Tierney’s advice and downplay terrorist assaults on Americans serving overseas, the result might well be that Mr. Obama becomes a hostage, though not to Somali pirates but instead to an outraged public with little tolerance for a leader who refuses to attempt the release or rescue of hostages or to punish those who attack Americans. Nor would a president making a show of his lack of regard for the safety and freedom of those who serve him at great risk likely retain the respect of other world leaders. Any president wishing to remain an effective commander in chief had best keep foremost in his mind those Americans who serve their nation in places of danger abroad and avoid the seemingly elitist advice of those who probably cannot imagine they would ever become a hostage.