No Americans Left Behind

June 6, 2014

What a week.  In her book Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton calls for an end to the embargo on Cuba. In reaction to the Taliban prisoner exchange to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the President’s political opposition is outraged; some are calling for his head.  Besieged by hate mail and other protests, the “Welcome back Bowe” celebration planned by the soldier’s hometown has been called off.

Will the bitter, partisan reaction to Bergdahl’s release or the principle he asserted in negotiating with the Taliban for his freedom carry greater weight in the President’s mind as he considers whether to negotiate for the release of Alan Gross?

If negotiations with Cuba are off the table, we might paraphrase Billy Malone’s question to Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, and ask the President, “What are you prepared to do?”

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We have neither the space nor the inclination to summarize what one commentator called “the manufactured brouhaha” over Sgt. Bergdahl’s release.  You’d have to live in a sealed container to miss the mud being thrown against the President, the freed prisoner, his father, even his father’s beard.  While their reaction to the negotiations could be consequential later, nothing the critics say or do– since the swap already happened and Sgt. Bergdahl is coming home – matters now.

By contrast, we think the principle used to defend how the Administration engineered his release is worth repeating and amplifying.

General Ray Odierno, Army Chief of Staff says, “We will never leave a fallen comrade behind.” Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls it “the sacred promise that America has to its people.”

State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf echoed the military leadership when she said, “I think what we were focused on here is getting this American soldier home. Again, I think there might’ve been some confusion yesterday that the – how he ended up in Taliban captivity is wholly unrelated to whether or not we should’ve brought him home.”

Finally, from the Commander-in-Chief, “Regardless of circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American prisoner back,” he said. “Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.”

Why wouldn’t that principle apply to Alan Gross?  Or, as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus put it, “What is the justification for freeing these Taliban officials in exchange for Bergdahl and summarily rejecting the notion of a much more benign release in order to secure Gross’s release?”

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The question of whether Alan Gross and Bowe Bergdahl are equivalent is a trap. Alan Gross is not a soldier, even though the technology he brandished was like a weapon.  While his covert trips to the island were part of longstanding U.S. government efforts to overthrow Cuba’s government, he was not really a spy.  He certainly isn’t a hostage.  He is serving a 15-year sentence in a Cuban jail because he broke Cuban law.

“He traveled to Havana in 2009,” as Tracey Eaton wrote, “with satellite communication gear, wireless transmitters, routers, cables and switches – enough to set up Internet connections and Wi-Fi hotspots that the socialist government would not be able to detect or control.”

Stephen Kimber explains further, “He never informed Cuba of his mission, and invariably flew into the country on a tourist visa. To smuggle his equipment into the country without arousing suspicion, Gross sometimes used unsuspecting members of religious groups as ‘mules.’”

The programs that funded his activities were authorized by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, the statute that codified U.S. regime change policies. As Gross’s USAID overseers well knew, “Cuban authorities in 1999 passed Law 88, which prohibited ‘acts aimed at supporting, facilitating or collaborating with the goals of the Helms-Burton law.’”

Against this backdrop, the U.S. government has consistently maintained that Alan Gross is “wrongfully imprisoned,” as Secretary of State Kerry told Congress.  It has said that the Cuban government should unilaterally release him without conditions, and that we won’t swap him for three Cuban spies held by the U.S. because that implies “false equivalency.”

As Bloomberg reported, Scott Gilbert, Mr. Gross’s attorney, dismisses this strategy.

“The U.S. government has effectively done nothing – nothing,” he says, in the years since Gross was arrested, “to attempt to obtain his freedom other than standing up and demanding his unconditional release, which is like looking up at the sky and demanding rain.”

This suits the hardline supporters of sanctions against Cuba just fine.  “We should not be trying to barter with them. We must demand the unconditional release of Gross, not engage in a quid-pro-quo with tyrants,” says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Six months ago, Alan Gross wrote President Obama to say, “I fear that my government – the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare – has abandoned me.”  Then he said in a statement released before his 65th birthday, “it will be my last birthday here.”  Now that the State Department has told reporters that the deal to secure Sgt. Bergdahl’s freedom means that “nothing has changed” when it comes to swapping Alan Gross for the remaining members of the Cuban Five, one can only wonder what he is thinking now.

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So, Mr. President, what are you prepared to do?

What justified negotiating with the Taliban, the editors at Bloomberg said, was not only getting Sgt. Bergdhal back, but preparing the stage for reconciliation in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws its troops.

The larger purpose in negotiating for the release of Alan Gross is removing the biggest impediment to improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba.  Although the President has not spent much political capital to obtain this end in the past five-plus years, he might choose to do so now, since Secretary Clinton has used the publication of her forthcoming memoir to disclose her privately-held view that the embargo no longer serves U.S. interests.  Obama can make the task of lifting or easing the embargo in the next administration easier by working to free Alan Gross during his.

Here, recent diplomatic history is a useful guide.  During the Carter Administration, a deal was structured with Fidel Castro in which Puerto Rican terrorists who shot up the Congress and Blair House were released and sent to Cuba, after which American spies held in Cuba for more than a decade were sent back to the States.  Both sides got what they wanted without admitting it was a swap. Such an artifice could help the President obtain freedom for Alan Gross.

In a telling comment about the furor that accompanied Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom, the President said, “We also remain deeply committed to securing the release of American citizens who are unjustly detained abroad and deserve to be reunited with their families, just like the Bergdahls soon will be.”

There is, after all, a principle at stake.  We don’t leave Americans behind.

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