US ‘no-negotiation’ hostage policy should be changed

Thirty years ago, when I was snatched off the street in Beirut by radical Shiites calling themselves “Islamic Jihad,” the world took my plight and that of other Westerners kidnapped in Lebanon’s long war to heart. During the nearly seven years I was held, countless demonstrations were staged on our behalf by churches, journalists, hometowns in America, France, Britain, Ireland and many other countries. Miles of yellow ribbon were tied to oak trees, and newspaper editorials ceaselessly demanded our release. When I finally emerged from the Lebanese gulag, the longest-held Western hostage, there were dozens of boxes of letters waiting for me, from school children and ordinary people across America, along with grand welcome home parties in New York and Washington.

Today, when more than 90 journalists have been taken captive in Syria, many by the self-proclaimed “Islamic State,” both demonstrations and editorials are few, mostly involving the families of the prisoners. With the repeated spectacle of televised brutal murders by these medieval-minded fanatics, the anger and outrage is muted. The public seems to be exhausted by the many horrors of recent years. While governments in Europe have paid ransom to gain the release of some of their citizens, the U.S. government has stood stolidly on its long-held policy of “No negotiations, no ransom.”

That policy, which was hardened into stone while I was still in a basement cell, had as its central theme the idea that paying ransom would only encourage more kidnapping. That is a principle I can agree with. When Ollie North and the Reagan administration came up with the idea of trading weapons for hostages in the 1980s, it achieved the release of three American hostages. Unfortunately, by the time the third went home, Islamic Jihad had already collected several more. The initiative, illegal as well as badly carried out, was abandoned when it became public. North barely escaped jail.

Also unfortunately, a Reagan administration under heavy public and political censure reinterpreted its official “no negotiation” policy to mean “Don’t talk to anybody, including the hostage families. Don’t do much of anything except cover your rear.” A principled stand became too often an excuse for avoiding difficult decisions.

Only today, with kidnappings for political reasons rampant and the families of hostages deeply angered by the government’s refusal to share information or address the problems, and complications plaguing those families with a loved one in limbo, has the Obama administration acknowledged the failure of that decades-old policy and announced a “re-evaluation.” No change in the refusal to pay or negotiate, mind you, but at least a second look at other aspects of the policy.

To which I and many others can only say, “Yeah. About time.”

While “no ransom” is easily understandable and easily defended, “no negotiation” as a synonym for “no talking to the kidnappers, or intermediaries, or anyone” has never made much sense. Talking does not mean giving the terrorists what they want. First, what the terrorists want is mainly to instill terror. As the “Islamic State” has amply demonstrated, the money is secondary. (By the way, I insist on quotes around “Islamic State” because it is not a state, and its claim that its actions are justified in Islamic teachings is absolutely rejected by the vast majority of the world’s Muslims).

In my case, when North’s operation was shut down, there was no movement toward our release for two years, mostly because the kidnappers did not believe that the Reagan administration was finally serious about not negotiating. It’s difficult to convince someone you’ve been sleeping with that you’re now a virgin. When they did accept that there was little more to gain, it took the efforts of then-Deputy U.N. Secretary General Giandomenico Picco to end the standoff. With no money to offer, no prisoners to exchange, really nothing to give the kidnappers, he used his startling powers of persuasion and the enormous respect he had engendered in his career to convince Islamic Jihad to let us all go. They gradually did so. On Dec. 5, 1991, I came home.

No ransom does not mean no talking. Sometimes talking works. When a hostage is taken in the course of a crime, the first person called in is the trained hostage negotiator. The kidnappers never get a plane or a getaway car. Just talk, until they give up.

I’m not suggesting the “Islamic State” thugs can be talked out of the evil they are doing. They have carried the notion of cruelty and brutality to new levels. But dismissing them without trying to learn something about how they think, what really motivates them, is not going to lead to effective options to deal with them. And it’s going to do nothing for their victims, including the approximately 20 journalists believed among the hostages they still hold. Five hundred-pound bombs are not going to solve this one. Nor will U.S. ground troops, an idea pretty much everyone with a working brain is rightly scared of.

And the disrespect and disregard toward hostage families that too often result from current policy is absolutely wrong and must be changed.

The re-evaluation ordered by President Obama is nearly complete. It has seemingly been conducted mostly within the White House and the security community. It’s unclear how much outside input has been sought. We can only hope that it is a real re-evaluation, not an exercise in “How can we make this look good?”

The hostages and their families deserve better.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is also published on