If it were Lebron James or Tom Brady, the United States would have gone to war. What should be celebrated as a win for America, the release of wrongfully detained WNBA star Brittney Griner, has become a topic for controversy and debate. Throughout history, hostage releases have carried political risks, especially when they involve prisoner exchanges. Victory for such moves is often attained through a deal with an enemy, almost always involving a concession that the enemy dearly wanted. In the past decade, Iran has frequently pursued its foreign policy goals through detention and hostage taking of dual nationals. Rivals hold American citizens for leverage knowing that that it puts the White House, that it puts the United States government in an extremely difficult position having to pit major national interests against each other. While Griner’s release is in the mainstream media, her release brings awareness to a larger problem. Why hasn’t the United States brought those from other countries back?
Taking hostages and prisoners is not a new occurrence; people have been taken hostage by those seeking to gain a political upper hand for thousands of years. Countries use hostages for political gain on an international level. Looking at Griner’s recent release, it can be said she was used as Putin’s political pawn. As a political prisoner, she was arrested for political purposes. Griner was being held as leverage. Because hostage negotiations involve a release from a third party, the demands from the hostage taker force concessions from another for that person to be released. It is clear Griner was used for such purposes. But Griner is not the only American wrongfully held abroad. Which is why it is difficult for the United States to bring others back. The processes to get those wrongfully convicted, like Griner, take a very, very long time, over months and over years. Many of those wrongfully convicted have been held in prison for many years. United States, and any other country, cannot just exchange whoever for whoever. Prisoner exchanges are a political process themselves. Using Griner’s case again, Russia in the past has demanded that certain Russian prisoners in the United States be released. In Griner’s situation and like so many others, it’s not up to the United States choosing who to offer. And vice versa. They are responding to the historical demands of an adversary. Which brings me to one of the controversies of Griner’s release. Why did Paul Whelan, a US Marine, who has been wrongfully detained longer than Griner in Russia, also not come home? Because like I mentioned above, prisoner exchanges are difficult and very political. Political in terms of geopolitical power, but the other, domestic politics. Which is why Griner’s high profile case has brought awareness to both issues.
The other issue Griner’s case has brought attention to is how prisoner exchanges are used for domestic political gain. It is clear prisoner exchanges are used for geopolitical gain. Russia and other countries like Iran, use prisoner exchanges to have countries, predominantly the United States, concede in a way that they wanted. This impacts relations and power dynamics on a global stage that could have major implications. But, prisoner exchanges are used for domestic political agendas. Even though prisoner exchanges are difficult to begin with, something could be said for Griner’s release instead of also Whalen’s. Brittney Griner is a black woman, a celebrity, a married lesbian, and a liberal. It could be suggested that her high-profile figure, race, and gender, along with national attention to get her released because of her status, contributed to her release, making it look good for President Biden politically. She is also a liberal and fits the model for the left’s persona. However, President Biden would not be the first president to use this power for political gain.
Ultimately, it is easy to blame US Presidents for their failures in bringing Americans held overseas back. But the whole process is very political and complex. In no way am I suggesting that Griner should not have been released, but like everything nowadays, it can be seen as political on many fronts. A combination of national interests, political interests, media pressure, and profile all play a role in deciding who Presidents want to bring home. This sadly leaves others behind. So, to answer my original question, while Presidents should try to bring everyone back, regardless of who they are, it is more difficult than the average American assumes. For that, a better understanding is necessary.