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Neocons Double their Standards on Prisoner Release

Rightwing foreign policy hawks have applied a double standard in their comments on the prisoner exchange between Iran and the United States.


It’s inevitable that neoconservatives will assail President Obama’s every dealing with Iran. And indeed, the denunciations were fast and furious of the deal that brought home four Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. Few of the critics explicitly rejected the deal, in which the U.S. government also commuted the sentences for non-violent crimes or dropped the pending prosecutions of seven Iranian nationals (six of them dual U.S.-Iranian citizens) and lifted Interpol red notices against another 15 Iranians. But the neocon criticisms all smacked of historical ignorance, hypocrisy, or both.

Take, for example, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which wrote:

We’re as relieved as anyone to see the four Americans coming home, though there was no legal basis for their arrests… But the Iranians negotiated a steep price for their freedom. The White House agreed to pardon or drop charges against seven Iranian nationals charged with or convicted of crimes in the U.S., mostly for violating sanctions designed to retard Iran’s military or nuclear programs. Iran gets back men who were assisting its military ambitions while we get innocents.

…Iran has again shown the world that taking American hostages while Barack Obama is President can yield a diplomatic and military windfall.

That’s all well and good: the Journal’s editorial board is typically eager to attack President Obama’s Iran diplomacy for virtually any reason. But it was a little surprising to see that the only brief upside to the prisoner exchange was the relief the Journal’s editorial writers felt at the Americans’ release. The editorial contained no explanation of why one might be willing to trade seven prisoners who committed non-violent acts (mostly for allegedly trying to circumvent U.S. sanctions) for four prisoners who were unjustly imprisoned. There was no explanation of the national ethos that mandates getting our compatriots returned to American soil, especially when the costs seem so relatively low.

All that came as a bit of surprise because, when it came to another country whose citizens were taken hostage by a hostile force, the Journal’s editorial board waxed all philosophical about the nationalistic impulses to bring prisoners home. In 2011, Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners—many of them accused terrorists—for one soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been captured by the militant group Hamas and reportedly treated poorly. Following Shalit’s release after more than five years of captivity in Gaza, the Journal noted the “unequal” terms of the trade and, in fact, urged caution in such disproportionate trades: “Sooner or later, Israel will learn the name of its next Gilad Shalit. Sooner or later, too, it will learn that the better course is to give its enemies reasons to think twice before taking hostages in the first place.”

But the Journal editorial also emphasized why a country might want to make such a trade (emphasis added):

The Jewish state’s repeated willingness to pay an exorbitant price for its citizens is a testament to its national and religious values, which stress the obligation to redeem captives. There’s an instructive contrast in that, for anyone who cares to notice it, with the ethics of Hamas, which refused to grant the Red Cross permission to so much as visit Sgt. Shalit. There’s a contrast, too, with the ethics of those Palestinians now cheering the release of “brothers” imprisoned for committing such acts as a 1989 bus bombing that killed 10 Israelis and the 2001 bombing of a Jerusalem pizzeria.

But virtues often have their defects, and the line between moral values and moral hazard can be a thin one.

Now glance back at the Journal’s editorial this week. Aside from the brief expression of relief, there is nothing redeeming in Obama’s move to free four Americans, no higher American moral character driving Obama’s diplomacy on this score, and no mention of “virtues” or laudatory comparisons between Obama’s desire to get the four Americans home and Iran’s motivations in taking them prisoner. Now, why the Journal makes no attempt to put this past weekend’s releases in a similar context is pretty bizarre unless you believe that that its editorial writers are either extremely partisan or that they believe that Israel’s moral exceptionalism is significantly greater than this country’s.

(Note yesterday’s comments of Amir Mirza Hekmati, the Marine who spent four years in prison: “Even the Iranian officials, our captors essentially, were amazed. They asked us, ‘Why are they working so hard for you?’ And I just said that it’s America and they love their citizens.”)

Abrams Chimes In

The Journal’s odd double standard wasn’t the only surprising denunciation of the White House’s diplomacy. The most hypocritical take may come from Elliott Abrams, the former Reagan and George W. Bush administration official and neocon heavy hitter. Abrams, who like the Journal editorial board and virtually all the other neocons, has been busy this week doing interviews denouncing the deal as a bad precedent. He told Fox News on Monday:

There should be a celebration for the families but you know, Bret, we don’t pay ransom to terrorist groups that seize Americans — a lot of governments do, European governments — to get the people out. We don’t pay…

Now we’ve given a bunch of Iranian-American criminals who are engaged in sanctions busting to help Iran’s missile program, to get unjustly imprisoned Americans out.

So I really think if we’re getting in that business, we do have to worry about what’s the next group of Americans who are going to be taken prisoner in order to do this kind of deal.

Like the Journal, Abrams struck a very different tone when discussing the release of Gilad Shalit. Writing in the Weekly Standard in 2011, Abrams said:

But those who think the determination to free Gilad Shalit wrong have at least as heavy a burden—and in humanitarian terms a greater one—to bear than those who believe Israel’s government made the right decision.

You might think that Abrams’s broadsides against the deal that brought Jason Rezaian and three other U.S. prisoners in Iran home are slightly hypocritical. Well, it’s worse than you thought.

The Reagan Payout

On Saturday, the neoconservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin reported on her interview with Abrams:

“In the Alan Gross case, the Obama administration traded several Cuban spies to Castro for the release of an unjustly imprisoned USAID worker,” recalled former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams. “Here, unjustly imprisoned Americans are traded for Iranian criminals—and the U.S. agrees to stop trying to prosecute fourteen other Iranians engaged in arms trafficking. Our delight at the release of our fellow citizens has to be tempered by our understanding that evil regimes are learning it’s profitable to seize American hostages.” He further observed, ” When Ronald Reagan freed our hostages in 1980 [sic], he paid no price to Iran. We’ve come a long way since then—unfortunately.

(Unless Reagan reached some kind of deal with Iran in advance of his inauguration, a possibility raised by the notorious “October Surprise,” it can hardly be said that he “freed our hostages” in 1980, as pointed out by Politifact’s takedown of Marco Rubio Sunday. Obviously, Rubio had been reading Abram’s script.)

Although Rubin politely doesn’t point out the elephant in the room, it’s right there for any reasonably informed person to see. Abrams, as he’s been known to do from time to time, is lying, at least by omission. Perhaps we have come a long way since 1981 when the hostages taken in Iran in 1979 were freed at no cost. But Obama’s swap deal actually made up ground that was lost in 1986 and by none other than Abrams’s Reagan administration.

Ronald Reagan didn’t just trade prisoners. He facilitated the sale (by Israel) of weapons to Iran (in defiance of an international arms embargo) in return for U.S. hostages held in Lebanon. Moreover, some of the proceeds from the arms sales were used to fund the Nicaraguan Contras in clear violation of U.S. law in what became known as the “Iran-Contra affair.”

Abrams should know this because he was serving at the time as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs and—wait for it—was later convicted of withholding evidence from Congress during the investigation of the scandal. Moreover, he was explicitly tasked by then-Secretary of State George Shultz to keep track of the various questionable activities in which Oliver North, the key operative in the National Security Council on both the Iran and the Contra sides of the scandal, was engaged. Indeed, Abrams worked alongside North and the CIA’s Central American Task Force chief Alan Fiers in overseeing the illegal funding of the Contras that, of course, included the arms-for-hostages deal.

Now, it’s possible that Abrams was not fully knowledgeable at the time about the circumstances under which the U.S. hostages were freed. But this is highly doubtful given his relationships with some of the key actors—such as Michael Ledeen and Howard Teischer, another NSC staffer, not to mention North himself—in the arms-for-hostages part of the scandal. Moreover, it is not remotely imaginable that he doesn’t now know that there was such a trade and that it took place right under his nose.

Reviewing the recent history of international hostage negotiations, the Obama White House seems to have gotten a pretty good deal. One only has to look to Shalit’s release or the Iran-Contra Affair to see the high, at times astronomical, price that countries will pay for the release of their citizens. But you wouldn’t know that reading the Journal’s editorial or Elliott Abrams’ commentary.

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