In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on USNews.com
“Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!” was a famous quotation by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. At the time, the world watched as Roosevelt dispatched seven American warships to threaten devastation if an American citizen was not returned to safety. American foreign policy was leveled at the Moroccan state that was unable to protect that citizen, and the terrorist, Mulai Ahmed er Rasuli, who took him.
Historians have dissected the events surrounding the kidnapping of Ion Perdicaris. In typical American fashion, doves and hawks highlight details of the event to bolster their modern cause. Doves emphasize that Perdicaris was not a legal American citizen, that Rasuli ultimately released him after France arranged a ransom to be paid and that Roosevelt would have been unlikely to follow up his bluster with landing a Marine expeditionary force. Hawks counter this by arguing that the world perceived Perdicaris as an American, that the threat of force bought time and American honor was preserved through diplomatic action.
The tragic murder of another American citizen, Otto Warmbier, by North Korea should cause us to reflect on the actions of 1904. For far too long those in diplomatic circles and the media focus attention on the details of a particular case rather than the overall issue. The focus is on the actions of the American abroad: Did Otto Warmbier tear down a propaganda poster in North Korea? Did Michael Fay vandalize cars in Singapore? Did Fattal, Bauer and Shourd intentionally cross into Iran while backpacking? Worse, did an American naval vessel intentionally cross into Iranian waters?
All of these questions are valid and important for American authorities in dealing with American citizens on American soil. However, they are invalid questions from a diplomatic perspective. The only issue that is of concern is whether or not the person brutalized, captured, incarcerated or obstructed is perceived as an American citizen, legal resident or ally.
There are two methods of analyzing this issue. The first and weaker case is the legal one. Foreign legal systems, especially those of rogue and failed states, are often incompetent or terroristic. Many of the worst regimes, such as North Korea and Iran, use state terror to control their own populace; their legal systems are a sick farce reminiscent of Stalin’s show trials.
Second, the so-called crimes themselves are non-existent in the West, or the proportionality of punishment is exponentially absurd. How is an American expected to receive any fairness in a system that is inherently evil and corrupt even to its own citizens?
The diplomatic argument is stronger. The United States is the world order-maker, protector of everything from the world’s sea lanes to cislunar space. Our citizens are the prime targets for criminals, pirates, terrorists and terror states. The United States should adopt an unambiguous position that no American can be maltreated on pain of retribution. The retribution should be aggressive, quick and robust. Those harming Americans should lose tangible assets, whether those are Iranian oil platforms as in the case of President Ronald Reagan, or military targets in Libya.
The actual crime committed by any particular American is entirely irrelevant. If a crime is determined to be so heinous as to warrant punishment, an American court can hear the case. Such a legal concept had been codified in international law as extraterritoriality and still exists today in select cases, such as with diplomatic personnel. It was primarily abolished because, as nation states interacted with each other, there was a belief that those national courts could handle individual cases in some impartial manner. In an effort to curry favor with foreign governments, many diplomatic services supported the abolishment of extraterritoriality due to its unpopularity among any given native population. The assumption was that any person brought back to their homeland would receive a more lenient punishment, if at all, by their home court system.
However, this legal issue is not as important as the diplomatic message that must now be sent. States and groups will hesitate long and hard to harm or abduct an American if they know that American retaliation will be swift, deadly and overt. Furthermore, American protection should extend to those who have helped the United States, such as Dr. Shakil Afridi of Pakistan, whose help was instrumental in finding Osama Bin Laden and who currently rots in a Pakistani jail.
The predictable canard is that many of the cases are those of American legal residents, citizens or allies who “should have known better.” What were those backpackers thinking getting so close to Iran? Did Fay not realize that vandalizing cars is illegal anywhere? Don’t Christian missionaries know that evangelizing in North Korea is suicide? None of this is relevant. The world’s superpower cannot create its own tattered fig leaf because the Department of State issued some internet travel warning. As much as it is not the responsibility of the United States to protect our citizens from themselves, it is also unacceptable for America and her allies to be targeted, neglected and battered.
In the end, this is an issue of America foreign policy, not of individual cases. American leadership and American honor are grander than any individual mistake or misadventure. There should be zero tolerance for those that engage in terror against Americans or those states that allow such terror to occur.
In June of 1963, President John F. Kennedy famously stated “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Regardless of the incorrect German grammar, this has been quoted over and over again, but few people realize what was said before that phrase: “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’ Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.'” Kennedy was hearkening back to Cicero’s In Verrem speech in 70 BC. The Roman view was that a Roman should be protected by his Roman citizenship wherever they were in the Roman world. America should adopt the same doctrine and avoid the chronicle of tragedies that have inflicted so much pain on American families.