Obama, Iran, and the tradition of prisoner swaps

     American journalist Jason Rezaian is shown in Landstuhl, Germany, on Wednesday shortly after his release from an Iranian prison last Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

    American journalist Jason Rezaian is shown in Landstuhl, Germany, on Wednesday shortly after his release from an Iranian prison last Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

    Remember the GOP’s fury last weekend, when the news broke that President Obama had swapped seven imprisoned Iranians for five Americans held by Iran?

    The Republican presidential candidates were seriously ticked off. Marco Rubio said that giving up Iranian prisoners makes America look weak. Ted Cruz called the swap “a piece of propaganda for both Iran and the Obama administration.” Jeb! Bush groused that a seven-for-five swap “isn’t much symmetry,” and said that he would’ve threatened Iran instead of negotating for the release of Americans (“I would say, ‘If you do not release them, that there’s going to be military action'”). Meanwhile, Donald Trump scoffed, “The way we negotiate, it’s so sad, it’s so sad.” And Chris Christie said of Obama, “This is not a guy I would let negotiate buying a car for me.”

    Naturally, none of them saw fit — even for a passing moment — to thank the president for securing the freedom of five jailed Americans, or to thank him for securing the release of the sailors who had drifted into Iranian waters, a potential crisis that was defused in a matter of hours. Thanking the president would’ve been the classy response, but hey, that crowd doesn’t do nonpartisan patriotism.

    But here’s the main thing: After their initial bursts of bluster, they quickly dropped the subject. Poof! It’s as if the events had never happened.

    See, this is how you know when Obama did something good. It’s when the Republicans shut their yaps.

    And what I’d like to believe (although, admittedly, this is a wild stretch) is that the Republicans paused in their fulminations, read up on their American history, and quickly realized that what Obama did was nothing new — that what he did (talking to the enemy, swapping with the enemy) has been an American tradition since the reign of the guy who’s now on the dollar bill. A tradition as old as the nation.

    Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were bedeviled by Algerian pirates, who had a habit of snatching and imprisoning American sailors off the African coast. Washington agreed to pay Algiers a ransom of $642,500 for the release of captured sailors. A decade later, Jefferson negotiated a lower ransom, and agreed to release 48 captured Algerian citizens, in exchange for 295 jailed sailors. Jefferson had initially contemplated going to war — he had sent a military adventurer to foment regime change — but his ambivalence was clear in a note he wrote at the tail end of 1804: “If the [regime change] enterprise in the spring doesn’t produce peace and delivery of the prisoners, ransom them.”

    But if that presidential ‘tude is “weakness” — as also exhibited by JFK, who swapped Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for imprisoned U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers — then the king of weakness was the quintessential Republican icon, Ronald Reagan.

    Reagan negotiated with the Evil Empire and swapped a Soviet spy for a magazine writer, for chrissakes. But that’s not why I’m flagging the Gipper. Perhaps you can guess why I’m flagging the Gipper.

    Early in Reagan’s reign, radical Lebanese Shiites allied with Iran captured seven Americans in Beiruit, and held them as hostages. Reagan had pledged never to negotiate with terrorists; on the other hand, he felt he had a duty to bring hostages home. So he and his people (it was never clear how much Reagan knew, wanted to know, or was capable of knowing) came up with a highly creative solution:

    To coax Iran into pressuring the radical Shiites to free the hostages, the Reagan team secretly serenaded Iran with a gift of 1,500 anti-tank missiles. Despite the fact that Iran was ensconced on the U.S. terrorist watch list, making such shipments illegal. And despite the fact that weapons shipments were supposed to be reported to Congress, under the provisions of the Arms Exports Act.

    And presto, the arms-for-hostages scandal was born. It surfaced publicly when the news broke in a Lebanese newspaper. Reagan initially denied it — i.e., lied about it — but a week later he reversed course and ‘fessed up, insisting that he’d had good intentions.

    Think about that for a moment. Now imagine what today’s Republican candidates would be saying if Barack Obama had secretly and illegally swapped missiles to Iran for American prisoners; and if he’d spent a week denying the whole thing. Their head detonations would be rattling your windows. There would not be enough carpet in this country for them to chew.

    Republicans love their party saint, but they never mention arms-for-hostages. They also love Bibi Netanyahu, but they never mention that the Israeli prime minister, five years ago, forged a deal with Hamas and swapped 1027 prisoners — including a passel of Hamas terrorists — in exchange for the return of one Israeli corporal. And presumably they love Washington and Jefferson, too.

    In the words of Congressman Dan Kildee, who flew to Germany to help welcome the newly released Americans: “We can attempt to deny the way the world works, or we can deal with the reality that there are people out there that we don’t like that we have to deal with.”

    It’s the real world that seems to flummox the GOP’s bellicosity caucus.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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