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Herman Cain, Gilad Shalit, and Emptying GITMO in Exchange for One Captive Soldier

Herman Cain is taking a beating – at least judging by my email inbox – over a line he uttered in the interview below with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer earlier today:

The part that folks are taking serious issue with takes place between 0:48 and 1:09, and the transcript is as follows:

BLITZER: Imagine if you were President – we’re almost out of time – uh, and there were one American soldier who’d been held for years, and the demand was, al Qaeda or some other terrorist group, you– ya gotta free everybody at Guantanamo Bay– several hundred prisoners at Guantanam– could you see yourself as President authorizing that kind of transfer?

CAIN: I could see myself authorizing that kind of transfer.

The synopses of this I’m seeing are some variation of “Cain said he’d release all Gitmo terrorists in exchange for one American P.O.W.” and “Cain would release all gitmo detainees for one soldier.” However, that’s not what happened at all – and I don’t share the outrage at this point that some of my very good friends and colleagues do over this statement. Here’s why.

First, the context of the statement, as one can see by watching the full minute-and-a-half-long video, is a discussion of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to exchange 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including murderers and terrorists, for IDF Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who had been in the captivity of Hamas for five years. Cain spent the entirety of the clip outside the nineteen seconds in question professing his respect for Netanyahu and declaring that a hard look at all of the facts and factors involved must – and in this case, almost certainly did – accompany such a difficult decision, which has such far-reaching repercussions.

Further, Cain completed the thought quoted above by saying, “but what I would do, is I would make sure that I got all of the information, that I got all of the input, considered all of the options, and then the President has to be the President and make a judgment call. I can make that call if I had to.

This isn’t an easy question. Many of us would love to live in a world where our President can be Harrison Ford from Air Force One and say, “Atrocity and terror are not political weapons. And to those who would use them, your day is over. We will never negotiate. We will no longer tolerate and we will no longer be afraid. It’s your turn to be afraid.” In fact, we had a president who said basically that in late 2001, after the worst terrorist attack in our history – and while it felt good to hear, we don’t (in my opinion) live in a world that’s significantly freer of terror or of threats to our nation than we did before those words were uttered.

The fact is, terrorists should never be negotiated with in response to any type of blackmail, including something as awful as a captive U.S. service member. While the nation has a commitment to those who wear the uniform to never leave them behind, it’s part of the job of the decisionmaker-in-chief to weigh the options and possible outcomes and repercussions, including second and third order effects, of each course of action in any situation, this included. I agree with Cain that Benjamin Netanyahu must have weighed countless details before ultimately deciding to agree to basically the same terms Hamas demanded five years ago in exchange for a captive soldier, and while I am happy for Shalit’s family that he has returned, and while I think a deal like this sends a message to other members of the IDF that, should they be abducted by terrorists, even years later their country will do what it takes to secure their return, I also believe that the negative repercussions of this exchange will far outweigh the positives. These include, but are far from limited to, the effect on Hamas and the Palestinian Authority of having their veteran killers back in the fold and on the streets again, as well as the validation of abduction and capture as a strategy that will pay off in a big way.

Given the circumstances – his stated respect for Netanyahu, and the fact that any black-and-white answer would have been used by somebody to bludgeon him for being a coward, for not caring about the lives of the troops, or for something else – I think Cain answered the question well. I also hope that we never have a commander in chief who would validate terrorist actions by ceding to their demands, even if it does mean returning a brave American servicemember from captivity. There have been examples during the GWOT of Americans captured, tortured, and murdered by terrorists, and there is at least one example even now in Sgt Bowe Berghdal, who has been in Taliban captivity in Afghanistan since 2009.

It’s the job of the President to look that situation – the captivity of an American, and his or her potential death – directly in the eye, and to weigh the possible outcomes of every course of action, from ceding to the captors’ demands to refusing to empower terrorists by validating their strategy. The right decision will almost always be to tell terrorists to shove it, and to decide what comes next from that default starting point. However, I don’t believe Herman Cain, in the clip above, was saying anything different than that. He was simply trying to cover his bases in answering the question, while not hanging the subject of the conversation – Benjamin Netanyahu – out to dry by declaring outright that he would never take a similar course of action, facts, details, and fallout be damned.

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