The Merchant of Death can now return to business
The Biden administration’s prisoner exchange sets a dangerous precedent
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A divinely assigned duty of a just government is to protect its citizens from harm at the hands of aggressors. This duty remains when an American citizen is outside the sovereign territory of the United States, but the context for it changes dramatically. When foreign governments hold American citizens on foreign territory, the American government’s tools and the considerations are far more complex.
When U.S. officials have the task of trying to secure the release of Americans unjustly detained by our enemies, government officials must weigh the cost of the prisoner’s release with the government’s duty to protect the American people and the nation’s interests. It takes courage and wisdom. President Biden’s decision to trade the Merchant of Death, Viktor Bout, for American celebrity athlete Brittney Griner, fails on both of these duties.
What made this trade so egregious is that Griner is in the thick of the American culture wars. She is an advocate for the LGBTQ political agenda who has taken up the left’s expression of “social justice” by protesting the National Anthem and opposing bills in Republican states that seek to protect girls from men who identify as women. She is also made in God’s image and our fellow American. We can be thankful that a fellow American is home even while acknowledging that America looks weak in accepting the deal that its diplomats brokered. We are glad she is back home, but this was a horrible agreement. It sets a very dangerous precedent.
The Russian government arrested Griner for possession of hashish oil and sentenced her to 10 years of hard labor in a penal colony, a punishment outrageously unfitting of the crime. But it is also the trumped-up reason the Russians have detained Marc Fogel, an American citizen you may not have heard of. But due to Griner’s fame and her associated political symbolism, the Russians clearly sought to use her to leverage the United States for concessions. The White House press secretary underscored the weight they gave her political symbolism by noting in defense of the exchange, “She is an important role model and inspiration to millions of Americans, particularly the LGBTQI+ Americans and women of color.”
And they placed such a high value on her release that they were willing to make the worst of trades. Viktor Bout is a notorious convicted international arms dealer, guilty of conspiring to kill Americans, directly responsible for running a range of illicit miliary grade weapons, busting sanctions, and arming the world’s most dangerous gangs and terror groups. His actions have led to the suffering and death of countless people, mostly in Africa, and of thwarting the stabilizing efforts of the United States and our allies. And the United States wasn’t the only country doggedly working towards his capture. British soldiers in Africa had been repeatedly attacked by groups armed with new and more deadly weapons sold and delivered by Bout.
Releasing Bout places Americans and allies at risk and betrays all of us.
U.S. military officials have already expressed concern that Bout will return to his deadly arms dealing, empower enemies of America and her allies, and threaten the United States and our operations abroad. This is especially true because the of the timing of the bad trade. Russia is still engaged in an unprovoked war against Ukraine and threatening the United States and NATO and could use the skills of Bout.
Moreover, the message the Biden administration sent by agreeing to this terribly imbalanced deal—trading a private American citizen who poses no harm to Russia for a dangerous violent Russian who instigates and exacerbates war and instability—is that there is enormous value in arresting American citizens, especially famous ones with political value. This only encourages further hostage-taking of private citizens.
It is difficult to imagine a trade for Bout that would have been worth it. But knowing Biden was willing to release Bout on some conditions, he should have demanded far more than Griner. In addition to Marc Fogel, Paul Whelan has been languishing in a Russian remote penal colony to satisfy a 16-year prison sentence. Whelan is a retired U.S. Marine who Russia arrested and convicted of espionage. The U.S. government has denied the charges. Our government should have insisted upon his release alongside Griner’s.
It is to our credit that American presidents place a much greater value on American citizens than our enemies place on their own, and so in that regard we are at a disadvantage for exacting concessions for hostages. But that makes it all the more important that U.S. officials keep firmly in mind the value of innocents who will be put at risk as a result of the trade. Because the Biden team did not, it should be remembered as yet another low for the administration.
But Biden negotiators were so desperate that they seemed unable to exercise power and leverage with skill on behalf of the American people. They traded a small victory for a grave injustice. The Merchant of Death will soon be back in business.
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