Why ransom is wrong

The United States government does not allow its citizens to negotiate with terrorists who have kidnapped loved ones. Dana Milbank in this morning’s Washington Post criticizes this policy, saying:

…but the hard-line stance clearly hasn’t stopped terrorists from seizing Americans; it means only that these Americans are more likely to die.

This is sloppy thinking, on several grounds.

Extremist groups in the Middle East and worldwide kidnap Americans in far smaller numbers than might be expected, given the country’s prominence in leading efforts against them. There is no reason I know of to imagine that this is anything but the result of the policy against paying ransom. The impact is felt in two ways:

  • Americans aware of the policy are more careful about exposing themselves to risk than Europeans and others whose governments do pay ransom.
  • Kidnappers know that their likelihood of turning a profit on an American is significantly less than their likelihood of turning a profit on a kidnapped Italian, so they prefer to kidnap Italians.

It may be true that once kidnapped an American is more likely to be killed, but that is a small part of story. It is far more important that Americans are less likely to be kidnapped. That only four of the 23 Islamic State Western captives have been Americans is remarkable. US citizens are being more careful than others and will provide their would-be kidnappers with less benefit.

Milbank makes other sloppy errors as well. He makes no distinction between kidnapped official Americans and private citizens. The cases of negotiated exchanges he refers to all involve official Americans, sent into danger by their government. There is good reason for the US government to treat their cases differently from those of private citizens, who take risks without informing the US government and often against its explicit advice.

I am one of those who has repeatedly ignored US government warnings to travel in conflict zones. I take what precautions seem judicious, consulting widely with people who have traveled recently to the prohibited destination. I also comply with the requirements of whatever organization I am working for. I do this with care, as I have no expectation that my government will ante up or allow my family to do so. If I did have such an expectation, I might be more inclined to take more risks. That is not something you as a tax payer should want me to do.

I hasten to add that it would be difficult, even impossible, for the US government to enforce with criminal penalties its restrictions on families paying ransom. Nor do I know of a case in which they have tried to do so. Some families surely do make an effort to negotiate. But there are precious few cases in which they succeed. Milbank cites only one.

The issue of negotiation is my view distinct from the issue of ransom. The fact is that the US government does talk, when it can do so safely and out of the public eye, with kidnappers. I see no harm in that, so long as it does not convey legitimacy, finances or other benefits to criminal activity. The reason ransom is wrong is that it provides a benefit that incentivizes further kidnapping.

Even discussion of changing the “no ransom” policy is in my view a slippery slope, one that could slide quickly into heightened risks for Americans. We need to be clear and unequivocal about the official policy, even if there are families that manage to circumvent it, talk with the kidnappers, and attempt to pay ransom. Precious few are likely to succeed.


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Accountability and transparency

Accountability and transparency are today part of America’s international mantra. We want war criminals and human rights abusers in Syria, Iraq and North Korea held accountable. We want open government that allows for public participation and collaboration.

There are two problems with this stance.

Those at the receiving end of our preaching are not necessarily keen on changing their governing system so that things can be done openly and collaboratively. This is obvious for Bashar al Assad, who wouldn’t survive a week in the Syria we would like to create. Kim Jong Un might not survive a day in North Korea.

But it is also true for some of our friends. Egypt’s President Sisi is no more keen on transparency and accountability than Assad, except when it comes to his predecessor and the Muslim Brotherhood. Ditto Prime Minister Netanyahu, who blocks serious efforts to look into the conduct of the latest Gaza war and continues to surprise us with settlement initiatives in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Burmese government we are now finding amiable has done little for transparency and nothing for accountability of the prior military regime, never mind for its own repression against the Rohingya and others.

The more profound problem is us. Whatever you think about the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques or police shootings of unarmed citizens, it is clear we are having a hard time with the idea that anyone should be held accountable if wrong was done, or even with the idea that the proceedings in which such things are decided should be transparent. We decide whether charges should be brought against the police in secret grand jury proceedings. It took years of effort and thousands of excised words to enable the release of the executive summary of the Senate Democrats’ report on a CIA program that clearly made serious errors, even if you believe it also did a lot of good.

Hesitation about accountability and transparency abroad and at home comes from the same source: we and our friends abroad know full well that it will be difficult to get people to do things we might want them to do in the future if we hold them strictly accountable in a transparent way for what their confreres did in the past. President Obama has not made it clear that what many of us regard as torture will never be used again. America’s police don’t want to be told that they have to ask questions first and shoot only when attacked with deadly force. Police unions have actually objected to training intended to teach their members how to de-escalate conflict.

The same is true abroad. Even when dictators are overthrown, their successors may not want strict accountability or even transparency. Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki did not restore the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, but he was no less keen on security forces that were loyal to him personally. He removed dozens of military and intelligence commanders, replacing them with less professional but intensely loyal officers who proved useless when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria seized Mosul in June. Brazil has only recently investigated abuses by the military regime that preceded the restoration of democracy there almost thirty years ago. It is not clear that anyone will be held accountable for the abuses.

Most governments treasure stability and order. They need loyal security forces. One of the good reasons for writing strict rules for them is to ensure that they don’t do things we will be hesitant to have see the light of day or hold them accountable for. In the US, it is time for a law prohibiting torture, and a national standard for how to deal with unarmed citizens. If we are going to expect better behavior of others, we need to up our own game.


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Downton shabbey

Some of us think the best of the new year will come January 4, when Downton Abbey starts up again in DC. But if you can’t wait that long, here’s a teaser:

It’s a charity thing. I trust season 5 will be a good deal better.

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The United States is to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. Stronger than expected economic and job growth. American companies repatriating. Russia cancels natural gas pipeline. Pro-Russian separatist push in Ukraine stalls. Iran declares its commitment to reaching a nuclear agreement. Baghdad reaches oil export and revenue agreement with Erbil

Today’s headlines may seem disconnected, but there are two common threads:  oil and money, which themselves are tightly wound together.

Little explanation is needed. The Cuban regime is on its last economic legs. It needs an opening to the US to survive. Its massive subsidies from Venezuela are coming to an end, because Caracas is one of the countries most forcefully hit by the decline in oil prices. The economic upturn in the US, and return of US companies from abroad, is at least partly due to more cash in consumers’ pockets, due to lower prices at the pump, and readier availability of energy resources. Russia’s South Stream pipeline fell victim to the combination of sanctions and lower natural gas prices. Russian support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine is falling short in part because the Russian economy is in an oil-price-induced nose dive, along with the ruble. Iran needs a nuclear agreement more than it did a few months ago in order to get sanctions relief that will help it deal with lower oil prices. Both Erbil and Baghdad needed an agreement, not only because of the ISIS threat but also because of lower oil prices, which pinch their finances as much as ISIS’s.

It would be nice to hear some other good news: reduced Russian and Iranian support for Syria’s President Assad, a pickup in China’s economy, and an end to recession in Europe are all within the realm of the possible. May this icy account of an official Iranian visit to Assad is a harbinger.

There is of course a price to pay for the benefits of lower energy prices. US oil and gas production, which had been climbing rapidly at $100/barrel, will slow down at $50/barrel. Oil company stocks are down. The stock market is jittery. Kim Jong Un, his economic woes relieved, is emboldened and less vulnerable.

The balance for America’s foreign policy is however positive. It is also likely to be long-lasting. American oil and gas production may stop climbing so fast, or even fall, laying the foundation for another price rise in the future. But the new technologies that enable exploitation of “tight” oil and gas are viable at anything above $80/barrel, and likely at prices a bit lower. Nor is the US the only country in which these technologies can be used. China, the UK, Poland and many others also have “tight” oil and gas. Once they start producing it, $80/barrel or so will become a ceiling for oil prices, a level that will require serious fiscal discipline in many oil-producing countries, both friend and foe. Russia, Venezuela and Iran have all been budgeting at $100/barrel or more.

The demand side also has an impact on foreign policy. While supply has been booming in the Western Hemisphere, demand is booming in the East, especially China and India. Middle Eastern oil that used to get shipped to Europe and the US will now go to Asia. That is already true for 50% of the oil coming through the strait of Hormuz. The percentage is headed up to 90% within the next decade. US diplomats are busily reassuring Gulf oil producers that Washington is fully committed to maintaining its close relations with them, but it is hard to believe we are that dumb (or that they are).

Rapidly declining oil imports from the Gulf will eventually make the Americans reevaluate. If and when the Iranian nuclear issue is resolved, Washington will want to renew the effort to move its diplomatic and military attention even more definitively to the East, where its economic and commercial focus already lies. China and India will have to pick up more of the burden for energy security, by holding larger oil stocks (neither keeps the 90 days that International Energy Agency members commit to) and naval patrolling. The US should be welcoming them with open arms into a multilateral effort to protect Hormuz. A few extra burdens of this sort would also encourage New Delhi and Beijing to restrain their oil demand and contribute more to limiting global warming.

The ramifications of lower oil prices are profound. We would do well to start thinking hard about them and acting accordingly.

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Cyberbullying is working, for now

This is the lousy Kim Jong Un death scene from The Interview that apparently caused Sony to cancel release of the film. A second film release, Team America: World Police, has also been cancelled. Kim Jong Un is now deciding which movies Americans can see.

The North Koreans have not been shy about making and distributing their own movies showing destruction in the US, including a nuclear attack:

These are folks who can dish it out but can’t take it. I know what we called them in grade school. The bullying is working for now.

But it is likely to draw some fire. President Obama is said to be looking for a “proportional” response. I suppose the leaking of the death scene may even be part of that, though it need not be. It is inevitable that the entire film, bad though it is rumored to be, will appear online in due course. Cybercommand need do nothing to ensure that.

This seemingly silly incident nevertheless has serious implications:

  • Cybertheft of the sort that enabled the North Koreans to embarrass Sony has a very low entry price. A few good hackers and computers plus a decent internet connection suffice.
  • It is fairly easy to hide your identity and geographic location when stealing from others’ computers, though the North Koreans seem not to have done a thorough job doing that.
  • Threats to attack movie theaters or other public venues are easy to make and hard to disprove or defend against. A single smoke bomb in a theater showing the movie would likely make most of us stay home, never mind a deadly attack.
  • The North Koreans are likely to conclude from this incident that cybertheft and intimidation work well against their much more powerful antagonists in the US.
  • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as other cyber-capable enemies will likely conclude the same thing.

Our economy is heavily dependent on the internet. On rare occasions I have been separated from both computer and cell phone (neither is allowed in some of the places where I teach). Those days my productivity is cut sharply–it takes me several additional days to catch up. Surely Sony employees are suffering something similar at the moment, as the company tries to figure out how to stop the continuing theft of its emails. The day this happens to the Federal government, the Federal Reserve, the New York Stock Exchange or other more vital institutions our GNP is going to sink like a stone. The same is true for most countries in the world today.

North Korea, Cuba and other countries that have kept the internet at bay are not vulnerable in the same way.  Cyber warfare between advanced economies would be very destructive, but there is also inherent deterrence: knowing our own vulnerabilities, we would have to think twice before launching a cyberattack on Russia, for example. Cyber is likely to be more useful to “assymetric” adversaries who don’t use the internet as much as we do.

I’m sure there are better ways to defend against cyberbullies than what we are doing today. But for now, they have the advantage.

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The Cuba saga is far from over

Political responses to President Obama’s Cuba opening have been predictably partisan:  most Democrats support it, most Republicans oppose it. Democrats are right that the embargo hasn’t worked, but Republicans are right that this opening will bestow some political legitimacy on an authoritarian regime.  All of that is well rehearsed.

Politically, the President is likely to win this round on points. Attitudes in the Cuban American community, and in the general population, have been tilting his way for some time. Marco Rubio may nevertheless gain prominence and conservative support from blocking key aspects of the opening–like the naming of an ambassador and dismantling of the embargo–in Congress. It won’t help in Congress that Cuba continues to harbor American fugitives.

There is still a lot of uncertainty about the political impact of what the President is doing inside Cuba. My own visit there last spring suggested that Cubans are really not sure what they want politically. Most treasure their socialist education and health systems and would like their economic plight eased, but beyond that their aspirations are far from well-articulated. That’s no surprise: they have lived in a tightly controlled one-party system for a long time. Thinking about alternatives has not been encouraged.

The President’s Republican critics are correct when they say it is not clear how his diplomatic and economic opening will lead to political change in Cuba. The Castros have demonstrated that they are not fools. They wouldn’t be doing this if they thought it would bring regime change. The dissident community, which has been unable for more than 50 years to take advantage of the economic pressure the American embargo brought to bear on the Castro regime, wants Western-style human rights and democracy. While they will try to exploit the opportunity, they are not overjoyed with what President Obama has done.

How things turn out will depend on the Cuban people. The dissidents do not seem to have deep roots there, but the regime doesn’t either. The state-controlled part of Cuba’s economy is on its last legs. Government employees are paid a pittance. Lots of people already have second jobs in the more or less private sector, from which they earn 10 times and more than from their nominal government employment. The state is withering away. Its capacity to maintain the health and education systems that Cuban citizens treasure is in doubt.

The government also faces a difficult immediate issue: how to unify the two currencies the country uses. Raul Castro has promised to do this before the end of 2014. The Cuban peso, in which most government salaries are paid, is all but worthless. The CUC, a convertible currency in which most transactions are now conducted, dominates the economy. Presumably the Cuban regime hopes the opening with the US will help it garner hard currency and smooth the transition to a single currency, which will have to be called “Cuban peso” but be valued closer to the CUC. If that process goes awry, Cubans could get very unhappy with their political system very quickly.

It is not only the Cuban regime that would be at risk. The United States can ill afford an economic and political collapse in Cuba that brings another million or more Cubans to Florida. It is in our interest that the transition to democracy happen, but also that it be smooth and not disruptive. President Obama has opened a new chapter, but the saga is far from over.

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