There was a time when the release of American citizens wrongfully imprisoned by a foreign adversary was a moment of bipartisan relief and celebration: the 2018 return of three men from North Korea, secured by President Donald J. Trump, or the release in 1991 by Terry Anderson, an American journalist, after years of captivity in Lebanon.
Those moments looked like sepia artifacts on Friday as women’s basketball star Brittney Griner quietly slipped into a military base in Texas for assessment following her release from Russia, while a Fox News reporter dotted the attaché White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre with pointed questions about a trade he says sent the “merchant of death” to Russia for a “professional athlete.”
Within hours of Mrs Griner’s release, much of the right wing was in full outrage mode, seizing at once the man Mrs Griner had been traded for – Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer notorious serving a sentence, in part, for endangering American lives. — and the Biden administration’s failure to also secure the release, or instead, of a former Marine, Paul Whelan, who has been languishing in a Russian prison since his 2018 arrest for espionage.
Considerable attention has also been given to Ms. Griner’s identity: a black woman, a celebrity, a married lesbian and, although it has gone largely unnoticed so far, an outspoken liberal – someone who, at the heyday of the Black Lives Matter protests, called to stop playing the national anthem at his team’s basketball games.
From the early days of the Cold War to the protracted conflict in Afghanistan, hostage releases carry political risks, especially when they involve prisoner swaps, said Danielle Gilbert of Dartmouth College, an expert on such deals. The scenes of joy and the human drama of a return to freedom must be tempered by the knowledge that victory was achieved through an agreement with an adversary – almost always involving a concession that the adversary longed for.
And, of course, legitimate questions can be raised about these exchanges, including whether they encourage even more hostage-taking or could endanger Americans, like Mr. Whelan, who are being left behind.
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who hopes to be Speaker of the Republican-controlled House next year, spoke about it when he appeared on Fox News to condemn the “false accusation” against Ms Griner but to say that the exchange with Mr. Bout had “made us weaker”. He added: “It made Putin stronger and it made Americans more vulnerable.”
But Ms. Griner’s case went beyond those calculations, in the tense arenas of race, gender and sexual orientation, and in an era of uncompromising partisanship, where large swaths of the American public are steeped in of grievance and adversary politics. demonization of Mr. Trump and his cronies.
The former president’s son Donald Jr. slipped Mrs. Griner’s identity when he wrote that the Biden administration “was apparently worried that their DEI score would drop if they released a US Marine,” using the corporate acronym for diversity, equity, and inclusion .
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Her father, the former president, took issue with Ms Griner’s political views, saying she “openly hated our country”. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia called the prisoner exchange “another reason to impeach Biden.”
And those were some of the more tame comments from the Trump-dominated right.
“There’s this underlying feeling that it’s part of the Democrats focusing on someone who’s sympathetic to them and leaving a Marine behind,” said David Silbey, a military historian at Cornell University. “It fits nicely into the narrative that a lot of the right is telling America about who gets privilege in Biden’s America.”
Prisoner swaps have long been politically difficult, especially for Democratic presidents. Mr. Whelan was taken prisoner when Mr. Trump was in the White House, and his sister, Elizabeth Whelan, a supporter of Mr. Trump, pleaded with officials close to the president to try to secure his release. In the summer of 2019, Mr. Whelan begged Mr. Trump for help — “Tweet your intentions,” he shouted to reporters from inside a glass cage at Moscow City Court — in vain.
Yet it is Mr. Trump’s successor who is gaining the upper hand.
There are many historical precedents. When Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and America’s sympathy was with the pilot, considered an innocent victim in the cold war secret spy game.
But when John F. Kennedy arranged Mr Powers’ release in exchange for a KGB colonel, sympathies quickly changed, with some Republicans accusing the administration of freeing a Soviet “spymaster” for a coward who should have swallowed a “suicide pill” issued by the CIA. ”
President Barack Obama suffered a similar setback in 2014 when his administration arranged the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier held captive by the Taliban, in exchange for five Taliban detainees from Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay military prison. Mr Bergdahl had walked away from his base, prompting accusations that he got what was happening to him, just as Ms Griner’s possession of cannabis residue prompted critics to suggest she had punished herself, a said Ms. Gilbert.
Bergdahl’s backlash led the Republican-led House to pass a resolution condemning Mr. Obama for making the deal without notifying Congress in advance, saying “these actions unnecessarily damaged confidence in the government.” commitment and ability of the Obama administration to engage and work constructively with Congress.
But while Bergdahl’s exchange at least involved fighters from both sides, historians could think of no parallel for the exchange of an American basketball star for a Russian arms dealer in the 14th year of a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill Americans.
Mr. Bout, immortalized by Hollywood in the film “Lord of War”, was found guilty in 2011 of conspiring to kill American citizens and officials with his indiscriminate arms sales, which armed both organizations anti-American terrorists and pro-American insurgents like UNITA in Angola. . It fueled the brutal war against civilians in Liberia led by warlord Charles Taylor, in which an estimated 300,000 people lost their lives. Mr. Bout would not have been eligible for release until 2029.
Many Americans saw the exchange as their government releasing a cold-blooded killer, with the deaths of thousands on his hands, for a member of the liberal elite.
“The Biden administration has shown the world what privilege really looks like,” wrote Rick Manning, president of pro-Trump Americans for Limited Government.
Mrs. Griner’s politics indeed come from the left. The liberal-leaning black publication The Root named her one of the most influential African American women of 2020 after she told The Arizona Republic at the height of the George Floyd protests: “I honestly think we shouldn’t play the national anthem during our season.”
Ms Gilbert said she had received a trickle of emails for months – many of them racist and homophobic – asking why Ms Griner should be released. On Friday, they became a torrent.
Yet Colin Kaepernick Ms. Griner is not. His politics were unknown to most Americans beyond the fringe right and staunch left until his release, when prominent right-wing voices latched onto them. Tucker Carlson led his top-rated Fox News show on Thursday night with a rant, accusing Ms Griner of being unpatriotic and suggesting Mr Whelan had been left behind because of his politics.
“Whelan is a Trump voter, and he made the mistake of saying so on social media,” Mr. Carlson said in his monologue. “He is paying the price now. Brittney Griner is not. She has a very different policy. Brittney Griner despises the United States.
And Mr Carlson was explicit about his identity – “which”, he said, “is at the heart of fairness”. He continued, “Brittney Griner is not white and she is a lesbian.”
Even though her fame and notoriety made her incarceration intolerable to some Americans, Ms Griner’s gender could color the exchange in the eyes of some critics, Professor Silbey suggested.
In professional women’s basketball, Ms. Griner is a superstar: Olympic gold medalist, national champion with the Phoenix Mercury, six-time all-star and the only true center to lead the WNBA in scoring.
The response to his arrest in Moscow on extremely minor drug charges – and especially his release – would have been very different had they come to his male equivalent, he said.
“If LeBron James had been caught by Russia at an airport and sent to a prison camp,” Professor Silbey said, “imagine the level of hysteria that would have caused.”