Hostage Diplomacy Is Back. It Requires a Forceful Response.

Some may have missed the triumphant return to China of Huawei “princess” Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese telecom megalith’s chief operating officer and daughter of its founder and CEO, in the waning days of September. The result of negotiations that began under the Trump administration, Meng’s return to China triggered the reciprocal release of two Canadian hostages arrested close to three years ago by the Beijing government, almost certainly for the express purpose of forcing an exchange.

Meng had been charged with financial fraud (specifically, “conspiracy to commit bank fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, bank fraud and wire fraud”), and was awaiting extradition to the U.S. from Canada; in order to secure her release, she admitted to infractions of U.S. law. The two Canadians were charged with “spying on national secrets” and providing intelligence for “outside entities.” But the details of the case against them are irrelevant, window dressing adorning a larger trend—hostage taking as a tool of statecraft.

There’s little new about sovereign kidnapping. In the book of Genesis, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is taken by the four kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, requiring the patriarch to gather “318 trained men” and undertake a rescue. Teddy Roosevelt shot to victory in 1904 on the back of a hostage rescue earlier that year, a showdown with the pirate Raisuli and the sultan of Morocco over an “American” kidnapped for ransom. (American is in quotes because later documents revealed the “American” in question was not a citizen, Teddy’s claims notwithstanding.) Jimmy Carter collapsed in defeat in 1980 in some part because of a failed attempt to rescue Americans taken hostage after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

In short, kidnapping and hostage-taking is a thing. But it is more recently that it has risen from being a tool of terrorists in the modern era to a regularly used tool of governments. And as with many such instruments of coercion, it finds its modern origins in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The most prominent intra-governmental hostage crisis of the modern era began with the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and the taking of 52 hostages inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. The crisis would bring down Carter and usher in an era of U.S.-Iran hostility that continues to this day.

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