Challenge To an Inflexible Policy

In the wake of the execution of journalist James Foley by Islamic State, there was obviously a lot of criticism of the Obama administration’s general attitude towards IS and its specific behavior in dealing with the group (particularly from conservatives who forever claim “weakness” is “emboldening” terrorists). But there wasn’t much criticism of the longstanding U.S. policy against “negotiating with terrorists” in hostage situations.

James Foley’s parents, John and Diane Foley, want to change that, or at least foster a discussion of a policy that most of our European allies don’t share. As Matt Vasilogambros explains at National Journal, the Foleys have set up a foundation in their son’s name to “start a conversation about changing the United States’ non-negotiation policy for kidnapping victims, or at least making it more consistent so that the Americans and British aren’t the ones who end up unrecovered.”

“We fear that there are going to be more kidnappings in the future—humanitarian workers, journalists, tourists in parts of the world that are dangerous,” Diane Foley told reporters on Thursday evening. “We really feel that American citizens need to be protected in this way and helped.”

The Foleys announced this new position at the annual Washington Oxi Day Foundation celebration, an event honoring the service of Greece during World War II. The organization gives awards to individuals who fight for democracy and freedom; it has previously honored Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. James Foley was given the award posthumously on Thursday.

If a public discussion of the non-negotiation policy does occur, it will simply reflect doubts already expressed privately in high places. During their ordeal, the Foleys report, FBI agents made it reasonably clear they favored a more flexible posture. There should be an opportunity to talk about it without so worrying about “emboldening” potential hostage-takers that American policy itself is taken hostage, and Americans unnecessarily die.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.