The New York Times reports on the brutal treatment of American hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff before they were brutally beheaded by the Islamic State (ISIS):
Mr. Foley and his fellow hostages were routinely beaten and subjected to waterboarding. For months, they were starved and threatened with execution by one group of fighters, only to be handed off to another group that brought them sweets and contemplated freeing them. The prisoners banded together, playing games to pass the endless hours, but as conditions grew more desperate, they turned on one another. Some, including Mr. Foley, sought comfort in the faith of their captors, embracing Islam and taking Muslim names….
"You could see the scars on his ankles," Jejoen Bontinck, 19, of Belgium, a teenage convert to Islam who spent three weeks in the summer of 2013 in the same cell as Mr. Foley, said of him. "He told me how they had chained his feet to a bar and then hung the bar so that he was upside down from the ceiling. Then they left him there."
The sources for the story include hostages who were freed (typically after ransoms were paid by various governments), local fixers who worked with journalists and aid workers, and others. It explains how various jihadist and other groups kidnap people and then trade them up to groups looking for high-level and potentially lucrative hostages. ISIS reportedly makes millions of dollars a year by ransoming captives.
It's a deeply disturbing article and, I'd argue, a must-read since it explores and explains not just the motivation and actions of ISIS but the successful ransoming of hostages by various governments (there's a graphic of the fates, some still unclear, of captives held by ISIS).
The article explicitly raises the question of whether ransoms should be paid—a practice in which the governments of many countries engage. The United States and Great Britain refuse to, an choice which apparently marks their nationals for death.
Despite that, I think that's the proper response for the U.S. government, especially when dealing with non-official represenatives of the country(both Foley and Sotloff were freelance journalists who were originally kidnapped by groups other than ISIS). Leaving aside the question of say, American diplomats or aid workers operating under offcial government sanction, any other sort of action would almost certainly increase the level of hostage-taking and create an even-more unstable situation.
The Times article also implicitly raises the question of whether the murders of Foley and Sotloff are a legitimate casus belli. In the United States, there's no question that the beheadings of the two Americans inflamed attitudes here and helped make ongoing military actions in Iraq and Syria not just politically viable but also popular.
However understandable from an emotional perspective, this strikes me as a mistake: If American foreign policy is being dictated by such events—no matter how grisly, barbaric, and deeply contemptible—we will constantly repeat the same sorts of strategic and operational disasters that involved us in the region to begin with. For the past quarter-century or more, our policy toward Iraq has produced nothing but disaster and the current re-introduction of troops and military force into the region is almost guaranteed to continue that record. As I suggested back in August:
If the first decade-plus of the 21st century should have taught us anything, it's that the United States' ability to terraform the world in its image is severely limited and leads to all sorts of unintended consequences. In terms of strict humanitarian concerns, it would better to help people leave war-torn regions and accept them on our shores.
But if the warrant for a new Iraq war is, in the president's words, to make sure that ISIL and other groups are "not engaging in actions that could cripple a country," America's worst days of playing World Police are still sadly ahead of us.
Neither Barack Obama, who won the White House in part because of his seeming repudiation of George W. Bush's foreign policy, nor the Republican Party (nor Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for 2016) seems to have learned much of anything from the recent past.