Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Obama, Reagan and the Americans still held in Iran

In his press conference Wednesday, President Obama had an interesting exchange with Major Garrett of CBS:

GARRETT: "As you well know, there are four Americans in Iran -- three held on trumped-up charges, according to your administration; one, whereabouts unknown.  Can you tell the country, sir, why you are content, with all the fanfare around this deal, to leave the conscience of this nation and the strength of this nation unaccounted for in relation to these four Americans?"

OBAMA: "I got to give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions.  The notion that I am content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails -- Major, that’s nonsense, and you should know better.

I’ve met with the families of some of those folks.  Nobody is content.  And our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out. 

Now, if the question is why we did not tie the negotiations to their release, think about the logic that that creates.  Suddenly, Iran realizes, you know what, maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals.  It makes it much more difficult for us to walk away if Iran somehow thinks that a nuclear deal is dependent in some fashion on the nuclear deal.  And, by the way, if we had walked away from the nuclear deal, we’d still be pushing them just as hard to get these folks out.  That’s why those issues are not connected.  But we are working every single day to try to get them out, and won’t stop until they’re out and rejoined with their families."

Not surprisingly, the contentious nature of the exchange drew a lot of attention, with conservatives applauding Garrett for confronting Obama and others condemning him. It was perfectly legitimate to question the president about the fate of American citizens still held in Iran, especially in the wake of the just completed nuclear negotiations. Just as clearly, though, Garrett framed the question in a highly accusatory and even insulting manner, suggesting that Obama was content to let the United States abandon the hostages.

But let's talk about the substance of the exchange.  Writing in The Washington Post, Dana Milbank suggested that Obama's inability to free those four Americans, including a bureau chief for the Post, represents a new reality in which America "recognizes the limits of its power and acts less ambitiously."

Which is just nonsense.

Thirty years ago, in an era when American power was perceived to be at its height, President Reagan faced much the same dilemma after Iranian-allied terrorists in Lebanon kidnapped a series of Americans.  The CIA bureau chief in Beirut was kidnapped and eventually tortured brutally and killed. A Marine colonel was taken hostage and murdered. Terry Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press, was held for more than six years, and several other American civilians were seized as well.

Reagan's response? He began to negotiate with the terror groups who were kidnapping, torturing and killing our people, eventually shipping more than 1,500 missiles to Iran as ransom to get the surviving hostages released.

It worked, at least at first. As the arms began to flow to Iran via Israel -- in complete violation of an international embargo as well as U.S. law -- three hostages were indeed released. But the flow of missiles also convinced Iran that hostages were a valuable commodity, so after the first three hostages were released, three more were kidnapped to replace them. That's precisely the dynamic that Obama is attempting to avoid.

Context is also important. All of the above was occurring just two or three years after the assault on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that had killed 242 Marines, an attack perpetrated by the same terror groups with whom Reagan was exchanging arms for hostages. It occurred five or six years after Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans captive. That was the era and these were the people to whom Reagan was sending arms.

Now, by any objective, historic standard, which president was acting from a position of strength and resolve, and which from a position of weakness? Which was willing to make and stick by difficult decisions, and which was willing to surrender and give our enemies what they sought?





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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.