He made one error on hostage policy


President Obama’s wide-ranging review of U.S. policy toward the taking of hostages abroad has resulted in some useful adjustments in government organization and procedure, and in one serious misstep.

Beyond a doubt, the recent spate of captive-taking, ransom demands and brutal murders in Syria and Yemen has devastated the families of victims and exposed confusion and indifference by U.S. government officials. A lengthy New Yorker article by Lawrence Wright described the families’ anguish, along with a private effort to assist hostages that was organized by David G. Bradley, the head of Atlantic Media. At the White House, Obama seemed to be caught up in the emotional despair of these families, saying he shared their grief not only as president, but also as a father and husband would.

Obama’s announced fixes include creation of two new hostage response groups, naming an intelligence community manager and appointing a special presidential envoy. He also pledged to keep family members more in the loop and to help them communicate or negotiate with kidnappers where possible. These are good steps, but no one should expect them to end the anguish. Even with “fusion cells,” special envoys and engagement teams, the next hostage-taking will be horrible for the family and the captive.

Almost inevitably, there will be more. When U.S. civilians travel to war zones, as many admirably do to deliver aid or report on events, they are at risk.

Where Obama went astray was on the subject of paying ransom to kidnappers. He properly vowed not to alter the long-standing U.S. policy against it, and he clarified a point of confusion among the families: that the United States would not threaten to prosecute any family that does pay ransom. This would have been fine to say in private. But to make the announcement from the White House lectern was a potentially consequential mistake.

Much of the latest kidnapping in Syria has been driven by money. European governments have paid millions of dollars in ransom. What will the kidnappers of the Islamic State think when they read that Obama won’t stop the families from paying up? Inevitably, the takeaway from the president’s announcement is that he has given a green light for cash to be paid.