There was a time when the release of American citizens unjustly imprisoned by an opposing nation was a moment of bipartisan relief and celebration: one thinks of the return from North Korea, in 2018, of three men, obtained by President Donald Trump, or the release in 1991 of American journalist Terry Anderson after years of captivity in Lebanon.
But those moments feel like sepia-toned memories since women’s basketball star Brittney Griner quietly arrived at a Texas military base on Friday to undergo a medical evaluation after her release and return from Russia, while a reporter from Fox News pressed leading questions on White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre about a prisoner swap he said sent the ‘death dealer’ to Russia for a ‘professional athlete’. “.
A few hours after the release of Mme Griner, much of the right was in complete outrage, criticizing both the man Mr.me Griner had been traded — Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer who was notably serving time for endangering American lives — and the Biden administration’s failure to secure the release of a former Marine, Paul Whelan , who has been languishing in a Russian prison since his 2018 arrest for espionage.
Considerable attention has also been given to the person that is Mr.me Griner: A black woman, celebrity, married lesbian and, though largely unnoticed thus far, an outspoken progressive — who, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, called for no more playing national anthem before his team’s matches.
Attacks from the right
From the early days of the Cold War to the protracted conflict in Afghanistan, hostage releases carried political risks, especially when they involved prisoner exchanges, says Danielle Gilbert, a hostage operations specialist with the Dartmouth University. The joyful and emotional scenes of a return to freedom must be tempered by the awareness that victory was achieved through an agreement with a rival, which almost always involves a concession that the adversary longed for.
And, of course, legitimate questions can be raised about these exchanges, including whether they encourage hostage-taking or endanger Americans, like Paul Whelan, who are left behind.
California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who hopes to become Speaker of the House of Representatives next year, broached the subject when he appeared on Fox News to condemn the “trumped up indictment” against Mr.me Griner, but also to say that the exchange with Viktor Bout had made his country “weaker”. He added: “It made Putin stronger, and it made Americans more vulnerable. »
But the case of Mme Griner goes beyond such calculations and illustrates the tensions at the confluence of issues of race, gender and sexual orientation, at a time of uncompromising partisanship where large swathes of the American public are steeped in the politics of resentment and demonization of the former President Donald Trump and his cronies.
The son of former President Donald Trump Jr. attacked the identity of Mr.me Griner writing that the Biden administration was “apparently concerned that its EDI score would drop if it released a US Marine,” using the corporate acronym for “equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
Her father, the ex-president, took issue with Ms.me Griner, stating that she “openly hated our country.” Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene called the prisoner swap “another reason for [la Chambre des représentants] impeach Biden.”
And these are just some of the more subdued comments from the Trump-dominated right.
“There’s this underlying feeling that Democrats are prioritizing someone sympathetic to them while ditching a Marine,” said David Silbey, a military historian at Cornell University. “It fits perfectly with the narrative that much of the right is telling about those with privilege in Biden’s America. »
Prisoner swaps have long been politically difficult, especially for Democratic presidents. Paul Whelan was taken prisoner when Mr Trump was in the White House, and his sister, Elizabeth Whelan, a supporter of Mr Trump, pleaded with officials close to the president to try to secure his release. In the summer of 2019, Paul Whelan begged Mr. Trump for help — “Tweet your intentions,” he shouted to reporters from inside a glass cage at Moscow City Court — by vain.
Yet it is Mr. Trump’s successor who is under fire.
The historical precedents are numerous. When Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and American sympathy was with the pilot, considered an innocent victim in the game of Cold War espionage.
But when John F. Kennedy arranged Mr Powers’ release in exchange for a KGB colonel, sympathies quickly changed, with some Republicans accusing the administration of freeing a Soviet ‘spymaster’ to secure the return of a coward who should have swallowed his “suicide pill” (suicide pill) handed over by the CIA.
President Barack Obama faced similar recriminations in 2014 when his administration arranged the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier held prisoner by the Taliban, in exchange for five Taliban detainees from Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay military prison. Mr Bergdahl had strayed off base, prompting accusations that he had gotten what he deserved. Similarly, the possession of cannabis residue by Ms.me Griner has prompted critics to suggest she was responsible for her fate, Ms.me Gilbert.
Mr. Bergdahl’s case led the then Republican-led House of Representatives to pass a resolution condemning Mr. Obama for entering into the deal without first informing Congress, saying that “these actions [avaient] unnecessarily undermined confidence in the commitment and ability of the Obama administration to engage and work constructively with Congress.
But while Mr Bergdahl’s case involved the release of fighters from both sides, historians have found no parallel for the exchange of an American basketball star for a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence. for conspiring to kill Americans.
Mr. Bout, immortalized by Hollywood in the film Lord of War, was convicted in 2011 for indiscriminate arms sales that armed both anti-American terrorist organizations and pro-American insurgents like UNITA in Angola. It fueled the brutal war against civilians in Liberia led by warlord Charles Taylor, in which an estimated 300,000 people lost their lives. Viktor Bout could not have been released before 2029.
Many Americans saw in this exchange the release by their government of a cold-blooded killer, responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, for the benefit of a member of the progressive elite.
“The Biden administration has shown the world what privilege really looks like,” wrote Rick Manning, president of pro-Trump Americans for Limited Government.
The political positions of M.me Griner are indeed anchored on the left. The online magazine The Root named her one of the most influential African American women of 2020 after she told The Arizona Republic, at the height of the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd: “I honestly think that we should not play the national anthem during our season. »
Just as her fame and notoriety made her incarceration intolerable to some Americans, Ms.me Griner may color the exchange in the eyes of some critics, Silbey suggested.
In the world of women’s professional basketball, Mme Griner is a celebrity: Olympic gold medalist, national champion with the Phoenix Mercury, six-time All-Star Team and the only true center (true center) to become the top scorer in the WNBA.
Reactions to his arrest in Moscow on entirely minor narcotics possession charges — and especially to his release — would have been very different had it happened to a male athlete, Silbey said.
“If LeBron James had been apprehended by Russia at an airport and sent to a prison camp, imagine the level of hysteria that would have caused,” he added.
This article was originally published in The New York Times.