North Korea has just taken a fourth American hostage because Kim Jong-Un has figured out that taking hostage is a very effective way to get U.S. leaders to do what you want. Including the man you would think would be the last person susceptible to this kind of monkey business, President Trump.
Note I say U.S. leaders. I’m not convinced average Americans believe we should be trading for hostages because I believe average Americans understand that this only gets you more hostages. You don’t have to give a dog a positive reward many times before they learn a trick, and bad guys overseas fully understand they can get a treat if they take a hostage.
But American leaders let themselves get close to the families of those being held, becoming all emotionally caught up in the cases and forgetting that trading for hostages harms national security — and future hostages.
This kind of stuff goes way back and edges across Party lines. Barack Obama was perhaps the champion hostage trader, infamously giving up five Taliban Extremely Bad Guys for a single U.S. Army deserter, Bowe Bergdahl and shipping $400 million in cash over to Iran to secure the release of Americans held by the ayatollahs.
But this is not just something liberals do. Even Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Trump is off to an early start with this sort of thing, and I’m willing to bet it’s no coincidence that Kim’s hostage-taking spree began soon after Trump secured the freedom of an American woman who had been jailed Egypt.
Last month, Trump arranged for Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American, and her Egyptian husband to be released from their Egyptian prison. The two were doing humanitarian work for street kids in Egypt when they were seized in 2014. Their imprisonment was widely held to be unjust and unwarranted.
The administration claims that Egypt was offered nothing to Egypt in return for Hijazi’s release, but that’s not exactly true. Her freedom was secured after Trump lavished praise on Egyptian President al-Sissi during his trip to the White House, signaling the United States was all done with criticizing his human rights record, while Trump specifically asked for her release. Who knows if it’s true that nothing else was given?
The problem here is that Trump made a big deal of the release and drew attention to it, ensuring that our adversaries will assume al-Sissi got something for his hostage. Hijazi was released following meetings in Egypt between al-Sissi, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell. Trump also sent his senior military aide to get her and had Powell accompany her home too.
All of this high-level involvement signaled the importance to the United States of getting this person out of Egypt. That the release occurred after two of Trump’s top aides met with al-Sissi certainly must have suggested a deal to outsiders, even if there was none.
The group got back to the United States on April 20. On April 21, Trump made a spectacle of things by inviting Hijazi to the White House for an Oval Office photo op that included his daughter Ivanka.
Kim Sang-duk, an American citizen, was seized just two days after this dog and pony show at which Trump, frankly, looked a little uncomfortable. Maybe in his gut he sensed this was not a good idea. Another American, Kim Hak-Song, was taken by the North Koreans May 6.
What Kim Jong-Un no doubt saw was a brutal dictator with an egregious human rights record getting the red-carpet treatment at the White House and then returning an American to U.S. soil. That’s a very bad example to set.
We should always try to get our people out of countries where they have been unjustly imprisoned or taken hostageKim Jong-Un. But if the effort influences our treatment of their leaders or if we even appear to be giving them anything for it, we are making a big mistake, a mistake we have been making without ever learning it’s a mistake. But our enemies learn very quickly.