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A Trade for a Smile

Putting a smile on an American citizen’s face really is not an appropriate goal for the U.S. government.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 8: President Joe Biden holds the hand
Biden was joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris (Photo by Oliver Contreras/for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Christmas is approaching and basketball player Brittney Griner is home. That is welcome news, for her and her family and friends. But the Biden administration made the world more dangerous with the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The prisoner swap was a very bad deal.

What is Washington’s role in the world? Declared Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson: “When U.S. citizens are unjustly held overseas, it is the duty of our government to do everything it can to bring them home. To understand why, all you had to do was look at the joy and relief in the face of Griner’s wife, Cherelle, as she appeared Thursday at the White House with Biden to announce Griner’s release.”


That is nonsense. Putting a smile on an American citizen’s face really is not an appropriate goal for the U.S. government, especially in international affairs. Heck, Washington could put a big smile on my face by cutting my taxes, ending expensive and needless wars, reimbursing my student loan repayments, ending defense welfare for rich allies, halting favors for the usual interests, or making chess the national sport. But so far the political class hasn’t obliged.

Even worse is the presumption that Washington should set a high priority on protecting Americans from their own stupidity. If there were no cost in doing so, it wouldn’t be a big deal. However, in Griner’s case, the sensible and reasonable among us are underwriting the irresponsible and myopic.

Griner carried cannabis oil into Russia. This violated Russian law. I don’t believe that should be illegal. I have argued for legalizing illicit drugs for years, even decades, but my (and her!) views don’t matter. What she did was illegal in Russia. So, under Russian law Griner was subject to prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment.

Sure, Moscow likely took advantage of her transgression by imposing a disproportionate sentence and highlighting her plight to the world, to raise her value as a hostage. Argued Robinson: “If Griner had been treated like most defendants on minor drug charges in Russia, she would not have been jailed at all, let alone sentenced to nine years in a grim penal colony.” But Moscow is not alone in imposing harsh punishments for drug use. Indeed, that long has been a complaint about the U.S. criminal justice system. Remember New York’s Rockefeller drug laws?

Anyway, if Griner had not given Vladimir Putin’s government an excuse, she likely would not have been detained. As one unsympathetic wit put it, if you don’t want to go to a Russian jail, don’t violate Russian law. Her situation was unfortunate and unfair, but on her.


It wasn’t Washington’s duty to bail her out, especially by releasing not a common criminal or stupid ne'er-do-well equivalent to Griner, but someone apparently long on America’s “naughty list.” Admittedly, it is difficult to assess whether Bout deserved to be called the “merchant of death,” since the U.S. government’s credibility in such matters is a bit tattered. Nevertheless, taking Washington’s claims at face value, U.S. and allied lives are likely to be lost and U.S. and allied interests are likely to suffer because of Bout’s release. In short, the prisoner swap was even more reckless than Griner taking a banned substance into Russia.

In the Post, Robinson responded to such complaints with the evidently true but irrelevant observation: “Putting a higher value on human life is a strength of democratic societies, not a weakness, and it is one we should be proud of.” Agreed. But that doesn’t mean democratic governments should be patsies.

Trading Bout for Griner ignored her responsibility in getting arrested. Biden ordered Bout’s release supposedly “based on significant foreign policy interests of the United States.” However, Griner’s release served her, not America’s, interests. To the contrary, the latter were undermined by the exchange.

Every such trade endangers other people. Some may be harmed by allowing Bout to return to his nefarious activities. Turning Americans into valuable pawns increases the incentive for hostile, authoritarian governments to take them hostage. Indeed, the Biden administration elevated a minor celebrity—Griner was more a leftwing, P.C. icon than global superstar—to major league bargaining chip. This endangers even the most mundane tourist since, perversely, you or I could become the next hostage seized to spring a mass murderer or master spy.

Yet the Griner-Bout swap was not the most unbalanced foreign swap ever. Probably winning that title was the Obama administration’s 2014 trade of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted his Afghan post for the Taliban, for five senior Taliban operatives. Along the way, a half-dozen American soldiers were killed searching for him, his defection not being revealed until later. In truth, the Taliban should have paid the U.S. to take him back.

What to do when the captive really is innocent, whether he or she has been formally convicted or is simply being held, such as by an insurgent group? In the case of Russia, the U.S. insists that Paul Whelan has been falsely accused of espionage. That may be true, but Washington usually doesn’t publicly acknowledge its spies. Still, some cases of injustice are obvious to all, such as when China grabbed “the two Michaels” to force the release of a Chinese citizen being held by Canada for extradition to the U.S. Then there’s a better case for Washington to act. That could mean a prisoner swap.

But the problem of hiking Americans’ value as hostages would remain. Especially when people have put themselves within range of their captors. Robinson's column demonstrated how sympathy influences U.S. policy. However, Washington should operate based on a tougher understanding of interest, especially in pursuit of the good of America—all its people—rather than just some Americans, who may have taken risks for which others should not suffer.

I personally like the idea of the U.S. cavalry being ever ready to rescue errant Americans worldwide. I have twice visited both Afghanistan and North Korea. I’ve gone to Syria, Nigeria, and many times to Burma/Myanmar. I’ve traveled to Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan. I visited Indonesia’s Moluccan Islands during violent conflict a couple decades ago. On some of these trips at least one member of my traveling party was armed. I certainly would like to think that the U.S. military would have had my back if something had gone wrong in those circumstances. However, my welfare during such exploits, other than during my NATO-sponsored Afghan trip, simply was not Washington’s responsibility.

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to threats against American citizens. The primary problem is U.S. policy. Washington policymakers want to run the world. The U.S. government intervenes in foreign nations at will. Sometimes that means interfering in elections. Other times it means supporting authoritarian and repressive regimes or sanctioning said governments. On tragic occasion the U.S. bombs, invades, and occupies other countries, killing promiscuously, with or without international sanction. Thus, other governments and nongovernmental forces cannot easily avoid Washington’s ill-attention, which encourages them to seek any possible form of leverage, including taking Americans hostage.

What to do? The State Department can issue travel advisories, but they reflect U.S. government policy, which often is biased by factors other than visitor safety. Formal travel bans are stupid. The problem often is geographically limited, that is, visiting a nation’s capital might be safe, but going hiking in guerrilla-infested territory is not. Even North Korea, despite its bad publicity, has never arrested an American for doing nothing. In every case the visitor did something stupid, violating Pyongyang’s rules. The resulting arrests were unjust, but that doesn’t set the North apart.

Sanctioning criminal regimes and groups is emotionally satisfying but rarely has any practical impact. Extradition for trial requires local capability and cooperation. Staging raids with special operations forces is often the most effective response but is possible only in limited circumstances. Winning international cooperation improves the odds of rescue, but even then success is never guaranteed.

Ultimately, the best solution to the kidnapping of Americans and other foreigners is for people to not act stupid. For instance, don’t take cannabis oil into Russia. And if you do, don’t count on being rescued. Washington should make clear that diplomats would do their best on your behalf, but no trades would be made, at least of anything of value. While the cavalry would still be standing by, it would be reserved for more important duties than rescuing fools, even American, who carelessly wander the globe.


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