Israel’s swap of roughly one thousand prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit demonstrates the extremely difficult choices any decent country faces when dealing with governments or terrorist groups that hold human life cheap. Whatever one’s view of Israel’s decision to make this swap, it is worth noting that Israel is exchanging prisoners–not changing its policies toward terrorism.
This point becomes important when one discovers what the United States was apparently willing to give Cuba in exchange for the freedom of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who is being held as a hostage in Havana. According to the Associated Press, the Cuban regime was told that the United States would not only free a Cuban spy held in prison here, but was “willing to consider”:
removing Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism; reducing spending on Cuban democracy promotion programs like the one that led to the hiring of Gross; authorizing U.S. companies to help Cuba clean up oil spills from planned offshore drilling; improving postal exchanges; ending a program that makes it easier for Cuban medical personnel to move to the United States….
Now, an administration spokesman told the A.P. that “the offer was only to discuss those issues after Gross was released, with no guarantees that U.S. policies would change.” That is not a significant demurral, because it admits that in exchange for Gross’s freedom we were willing not only to engage in a prisoner swap but to bring into question key elements of our policy toward Cuba. It is especially offensive that we were willing to negotiate over support for democracy in Cuba, for that would mean that the unjust imprisonment of Gross had given the Castro dictatorship a significant victory. The implications for those engaged in similar democracy promotion activities elsewhere are clear: local regimes would think that imprisoning an American might be a terrific way to get into a negotiation about ending such activities.
Every American administration faces tough choices in these situations, but the Obama administration has made a great mistake here. Our support for democracy should not be a subject of negotiation with the Castro regime.