What went unsaid in Obama's directive on hostages: Stay out of harm's way

Don't put yourself in harm's way. That would have been the best advice President Obama could have given to Americans on Wednesday when he announced his presidential directive and executive order on hostage-taking.

He didn't say it because it's politically incorrect, tantamount to a surrender to terrorism. Some might even argue that it's disrespectful to the memories of those brave Americans who as journalists and aid workers tried to report on conflict areas and assist those caught up in them.

But it's common sense and sound advice in what promises to be a very long war against Islamic State and other terrorist groups. These groups will continue to look at Americans, in uniform and out, as the most desirable and high-profile targets and will expend great effort to capture them.

The president's new policy is a reasonable effort on a very sensitive issue, but it doesn't change the traditional U.S. stance. It is more about process than substance. The interagency Hostage Recovery Infusion Cell created by the directive would presumably offer a more coordinated approach within the federal government. The administration will expend greater efforts to interact with hostage families and take their concerns more seriously. The president told the families, "We're not going to abandon you. We will stand by you." The directive also assures them that the government will not prosecute those who seek their own avenues — including paying a ransom — to free their loved ones.

So what's really new? Not much really. The administration stayed within its traditional parameters on the broad policy issues related to not making concessions to terrorist groups. The president did say the government could communicate with hostage-takers to gain information and to protect families from being defrauded in any personal efforts.

Communicating is an intriguing choice of words and might imply some form of negotiation. The president did not define in much detail what those communications might entail or whether the government would facilitate personal efforts by families to negotiate releases. The directive does allow third parties such as the Red Cross to participate in negotiations.

One thing is unmistakably clear. The administration has no intention of actively following the example of several European governments that have gained the release of their nationals by paying ransoms. The directive states that U.S. policy will continue "to deny hostage-takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other acts of concession."

Republicans were quick to register their concern that even communicating with terrorists might put the U.S. on a slippery slope. House Speaker John A. Boehner said that, while he hadn't seen the directive, "We have had a policy in the United States for over 200 years of not paying ransom and not negotiating with terrorists, and the concern that I have is that by lifting that long-held principle you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas."

The fact is there are quite a few examples of the U.S. negotiating with terrorists indirectly and directly, most notably the Reagan administration's efforts to secure the release of American hostages taken by Iran. The speaker may well be concerned that the U.S. might do so again.

There were others in Congress who were also disappointed that the directive didn't create a hostage czar to cut through government red tape and to streamline efforts. "There needs to be a single person situated above the fusion cell, with the authority necessary to direct certain activities, isolate turf battles and streamline the bureaucracy. The FBI is not organized or developed for hostage recovery in hostile areas, yet they are leading the fusion cell," Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) said.

The administration's review of its policy on hostages came under duress as families complained bitterly about what hasn't been done to gain the release of their loved ones. The president admitted that his administration hadn't done nearly enough: "There have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let [families] down."

But these changes will not be enough to address the basic problem. Nothing really will. There's been a 148% increase in the number of terror-related deaths worldwide between 2010 and 2014. And though few Americans have been victims, the problem will continue and U.S. citizens will remain very high-value targets.

The directive didn't spell it out, but it's clear how limited U.S. options really are. With the directive, Washington will do a better job of coordinating policy and reaching out to families, and in certain situations could even attempt rescue missions with special forces. But there will be no U.S. concessions in money, policy or prisoner trades for those Americans unlucky enough to be taken hostage. What might happen should U.S. military personnel be taken hostage by a group such as Islamic State is another matter. That might well lead to some quid pro quo, perhaps involving some kind of a prisoner exchange.

Obama couldn't and would never say it, but he probably was thinking it: The best way to avoid being taken hostage is to avoid putting yourself in these danger zones to begin with. Americans have to take responsibility for the personal choices they make in these danger zones. That may be downright un-American to say out loud, but it's still the safe and smart choice when it comes to Islamic State-controlled areas.

Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President."

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