The way some are framing it, the Biden administration struck diplomatic gold in its deal to secure the release of American WNBA player Brittney Griner from Russian custody. They focus exclusively on the unalloyed good news, which is that one of our citizens is coming home after being unjustly detained by a hostile regime. It's impossible to feel joy and relief for Griner and her loved ones. All Americans should welcome her back and celebrate her safe return. However. That is not the whole story, and anyone discussing this episode as if it involves no trade-offs or downsides is either engaged in dishonest spin, or showcasing their own ignorance. According to a distorted version of events, right-wingers are attacking Biden for bringing Griner back out of some combination of knee-jerk partisanship and identity politics-driven bitterness.
They just hate Biden no matter what, the story goes, and they're especially mad because the prisoner involved is a black lesbian. This is nonsense, even if some people really are fixated on the identity angle, and I'll allow someone who cannot be mistaken for a conservative explain why:
Menendez:— Aaron Blake (@AaronBlake) December 10, 2022
“… We cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision. We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans overseas as bargaining chips …” https://t.co/xbkqJvmY4f
That would be the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, stating the obvious about the risks of this transaction. Russia grabbed a US citizen guilty of, at worst, marijuana possession, and used her as a high-profile pawn to achieve the release of a notorious arms dealer with blood-soaked hands, convicted of conspiring to murder Americans. By any definition, that is a grotesquely imbalanced trade, regardless of whether or not one thinks the Biden administration is being honest about the terms Russia set. Either way, it's clear Russia set the agenda, made its demands, and got what it wanted. "Historians could think of no parallel for the exchange of an American basketball star for a Russian arms merchant in the 14th year of a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill Americans," per the New York Times.
We can be happy for Griner and her family while acknowledging the serious danger of incentivizing more unjust detainments of Americans by rogue governments who realize they can extract a very high price from the Biden administration -- especially if the detainee fits a certain profile. There will be more Griner families, more fear, more terrible ordeals. Incentives matter, as we keep re-learning with this White House running the show. I still can't quite get over this answer from a top Biden spokesman about this perilous dynamic:
.@marthamaccallum: "This kind of policy of letting people go who are dangerous in order to get Americans back—Does this not encourage more abductions...?— Townhall.com (@townhallcom) December 8, 2022
Kirby: "To some degree, that ship has sailed." pic.twitter.com/fdHoIr30Yt
"That ship has sailed." Tell that to the next family, and the next one, etc. Then there's the matter of just how dangerous the man at the other end of this exchange is:
“Russia’s plan worked perfectly. We folded, and we sent back an international terrorist … And now he's going to be way smarter because he knows some of the techniques that have been used against him.”— Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) December 9, 2022
A Senior Defense Official says there are concerns Viktor Bout could restart arms deals in Africa. "I think there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he's done in the past," the official said.— Liz Friden (@Liz_Friden) December 8, 2022
This is somewhat reminiscent of President Obama's insane 'Taliban Five' deal that traded five high-level hardcore jihadists for an American deserter. I'll leave you with this:
Back home in Russia, Viktor Bout has wasted no time in making clear his support for the invasion of Ukraine— Francis Scarr (@francis_scarr) December 10, 2022
He tells Maria Butina that Russia should have launched the "special military operation" earlier pic.twitter.com/ryqdrtgDGl