For Hawks, Every American Captive Returned Home Diplomatically is a Failed Opportunity

by Eli Clifton

This month, opponents of the Iran deal have decided to run with the talking point that the delivery of $400 million to Iran in January was a “ransom payment” for the release of three American citizens. The New York Times editorial board concluded that their release was “pragmatic diplomacy not capitulation,” not to mention the fact that the funds actually belonged to Iran as payment for an arms deal that didn’t go through due to the 1979 revolution and the money was further withheld to maintain “maximum leverage” to ensure that the three Americans were released.

But this isn’t a one-off incident of foreign policy hawks twisting the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to release Americans held-abroad. This is the third time in less than three years that the White House has been the target of claims that it empowered America’s enemies by negotiating the release of U.S. civilians or soldiers held abroad. In none of the cases were ransoms paid and in all instances Americans were returned home without the use of force. Critics of the White House’s diplomatic successes brand these achievements as failures.

Back in 2014, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive for nearly five years by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network, was released as part of a prisoner swap for five Taliban members held at Guantanamo Bay.

Critics of Obama’s foreign policy pounced. The hawkish Wall Street Journal editorial board declared that the deal was a “political fiasco” and claimed “our guess is that [National Security Adviser Susan Rice] oversold [Bergdahl] as a hero because the white House was hoping to turn the swap into a foreign-policy victory.”

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol accused Obama of trying to silence criticism “following his trade of five terrorists for one deserter,” by “flanking himself in the Rose Garden with the long-suffering mom and dad of a soldier who had been behind enemy lines for five years.”

Apparently, the price paid for Bergdahl was too high for critics of the Obama administration, an odd position for anyone to take about the negotiated release of a U.S. service member held by the Haqqani network, regardless of whether he abandoned his post or not.

But Obama’s critics, who were quick to take up the charge that Obama had paid too high a price for a U.S. service member (they never offered their own estimate of a how much a U.S. Army Sergeant who may or may not have deserted his unit was worth), pounced on Obama again, less than two years later, when the White House’s diplomacy secured the release of U.S. Navy sailors who were detained after entering Iranian territorial waters in January, 2016.

Iran hawks and neoconservatives jumped at the opportunity to escalate the matter beyond a diplomatic incident and into a full-scale war. The Israel Project’s Omri Ceren tweeted: “I think a ‘hostile’ seizure of US sailors counts as an ‘attack.’”

And the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka mocked Obama, tweeting: “‘No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin.’ So what’s up with those sailors in #Iran?”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that the incident was yet another reason why “on my first day in office, in that Oval Office, I am going to cancel this ridiculous deal he has struck with Iran,” and Jeb Bush said it was the result of Obama’s “humiliatingly weak Iran policy.”

And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) promised that he would start a war if U.S. sailors were detained under his presidency.

The White House’s Iran policy apparently worked in John Kerry’s favor. He was able to negotiate the release of the sailors in fifteen hours, a noticeably shorter time period than the 13 days required to negotiate the release of 15 British Royal Naval Sailors in 2007, and a significantly lower human and monetary cost than tearing up the agreement that curtails Iran’s nuclear program or starting a shooting war in the Persian Gulf.

But the constant urge to attack the White House and American diplomats when they negotiate the release of Americans held abroad is becoming a noticeable trend for critics of the White House’s efforts to pursue diplomacy instead of military force as the preferred tool for furthering American interests.

Indeed, many of the White House’s neoconservative critics, such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ John Hannah, have made it abundantly clear that they prefer a policy of regime change to any negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

It’s worth asking how such a policy position would impact the fates of Americans who are detained overseas.

One thing is clear, opponents of the White House’s diplomacy-favoring foreign policy see every American returned home as a result of negotiations and diplomacy as an opportunity to attack the methods by which they were released. If these critics had it their way, it’s entirely likely that many of these Americans would not be sitting safely at home.

Photo: Bill Kristol

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. Nice to read this post about the hawks against Obama’s diplomatic policies. My thinking about it parallels yours. I’m no expert, but it all makes sense to always try diplomacy first. If the neoconservatives had their way, we’d be in more hot water than we are now. I shudder at the possible loss of more of our young people. Kerry is doing a great job IMHO.

  2. Ask Bill Kristol If president Reagan sending Tow Missiles to Iran in 1980s for release of American hostages in Lebanon a “Ransom Payment” to Iran?

  3. These fatcats’ mission has been accomplished and will continue until completion for many years! Their mission has been:
    1. To destabilize the ME & NA (darker skin color) and keep it in the state of chaos by constantly creating in fighting for them
    2. Get rid of homegrown dictators under the false claims of human rights
    3. State of chaos in the ME allows illegal Arab’s land grabbing to no end
    4. Keep the Arab states, mostly the Gulf states, in state of fear in order to take their resources and in return sell them arms continuously!

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