Why Presidents Let Some Terrorists Walk
Over the past quarter-century, every U.S. president has, without exception, helped secure the release of terrorists onto U.S. soil. This is a disquieting truth, hidden in plain sight. George H.W. Bush freed an infamous militant in 1990. Bill Clinton unleashed a fusillade of clemencies in 1999. George W. Bush released violent political extremists both before the advent of the War on Terror, in the summer of 2001, and after, in 2007. Barack Obama waited until the twilight of his presidency, in January 2017, to do so.
The right of party leaders to free extremists of their preference — never, of course, uttering the fearsome “t-word” — appears to be a rare example of bipartisan comity.
These former presidents may have been motivated, in part, by an onrush of empathy or generosity, a sense that the individuals in question had paid their debt to society and should therefore be absorbed back into it. People change; mercy is a virtue.
But the evidence mostly points in the opposite direction: The decision to release these extremists was based on calculations of raw political interest. And while these actions may confer short-term advantages to partisan politicians in the United States, the longer-term effect is one of moral incoherence, and a resulting decline in U.S. credibility on terrorism issues.
The truth is that both major U.S. political parties have taken a “soft” approach to terror when it suits them. Republicans, for instance, have found themselves engaged in an uncomfortable decades-long embrace with anti-Castro Cuban terrorists in exile, who have often been shielded (and at times, cultivated) by conservative politicians in South Florida and beyond. Democrats, for their part, have historically been solicitous of far-left Puerto Rican terrorism, and, to a lesser extent, 1960s New Left terror groups such as the Weather Underground. Predictably, of course, partisans in both parties argue that the other side’s extremists are the “real” terrorists.
The reasons for this bifurcated approach to terror are clear enough: Cubans have been a key Republican constituency in New Jersey and Florida since President John F. Kennedy’s perceived betrayal during the Bay of Pigs; and Puerto Ricans are a powerful Democratic voting bloc in New York, New Jersey — and increasingly, Florida — politics. (Of course, divergent attitudes toward these groups are also ideologically motivated: the anti-Castro terrorists were militant anti-communists, an idea that long animated the right; while the Marxist Puerto Rican terrorists were anti-imperialists, an important cause for the left.)
Take the case of Orlando Bosch, a notorious anti-Castro terrorist widely considered responsible for a 1976 Air Cubana bombing that killed 73. Bosch’s freedom was secured in 1990 after the intercession of Jeb Bush, who lobbied his father for Bosch’s release. (George H.W. Bush narrowly carried Florida in 1992; Jeb, who established deep connections to the Cuban exile community, was elected governor in 1999.) Later, George W. Bush helped secure the release of Luis Posada, Bosch’s alleged co-conspirator in the Air Cubana bombing, as well as two anti-Castro terrorists implicated in the 1976 assassination of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador, in Washington, D.C.
Democrats have been no less calculating. Consider Bill Clinton’s 1999 commutation of the sentences for 14 members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, known by its Spanish acronym FALN, an unusually sophisticated Puerto Rican terrorist group responsible for more than 130 bombings in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, including the 1975 bombing of Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan, which killed four and wounded 63.
At the time of Clinton’s commutations, Hillary Clinton was preparing to run for Senate in New York state, home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans. Bill Clinton’s actions were widely seen, and excoriated, as a bald attempt to curry favor with these voters. Congressional Democrats from New York and Illinois also lobbied Clinton for the release of the FALN prisoners. This process would repeat itself years later, leading Obama to free the unrepentant FALN leader Oscar Lopez, whose subsequent feting at this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City caused a major headache for local politicians.
While these cases involving the Puerto Rican and Cuban radicals from the 1970s and 1980s might be exemplary, they are by no means exhaustive. Our politicians have made ethical compromises regarding terrorist organizations and their sympathizers, and these decisions have reverberated beyond our borders. U.S.-based anti-Castro Cuban militants, for example, fanned out across Latin America in the years after the Bay of Pigs, destabilizing the region. And the far-right Jewish Defense League (JDL), which unleashed a wave of bombings and assassinations in the United States between the 1960s and 1980s, slowly transported its network to Israel after its founder, the New York-based Rabbi Meir Kahane, relocated there.
These domestic struggles with the politics of terrorism have profound foreign policy implications. By observing the ethical compromises our own politicians have made regarding terrorist organizations and their sympathizers, we can better understand the difficult choices facing foreign governments struggling with terror, and the calculations their politicians must make about co-opting these groups into the political process, or ostracizing them from it.
Take the cases of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Both organizations are simultaneously mass movements, political parties and terror groups. They are key forces in undermining peace and stability in their respective zones of influence, and necessary partners for achieving it. These groups are morally repugnant and altogether dangerous, but they cannot simply be wished away politically.
This conundrum, of course, isn’t limited to the Middle East. Recent parliamentary talks in the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives codified an agreement with the far-right Democratic Unionist Party — which has long-standing connections to Protestant Unionist terror groups from Northern Ireland — shows the difficult and morally complicated choices that politicians all over the world must make with figures, and constituencies, associated with terror.
Only by reexamining in an honest fashion our own country’s history of incubating and exporting terrorism, and the ways in which U.S. politicians have quietly reconciled themselves to the electoral benefits of sidling up to sympathetic constituencies, can we develop a more subtle understanding of the strategic dilemmas faced today by other countries worldwide. To engage in such a conversation, free from the hyperventilation and cant that too often substitutes for real discourse on this issue, would be a signal service to the American people.
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