One of the most bizarre storylines of these Olympic games has been that of U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte. He made headlines after weaving a tale of being robbed at gunpoint by men dressed as police after leaving a party late on Sunday. Little of it turned out to be true. Someone did in fact brandish a gun at Lochte, but it was a gas station security guard who was trying to prevent Lochte from leaving the scene after the swimmer vandalized the store. Lochte, and other members of the swim team who were with him, asked how much they needed to pay for the damages, they handed over $50, and they left.
Lochte’s story later broke down under scrutiny, but even still, his apology attempted to bend the facts to his benefit.
“I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend – for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning,” Lochte wrote in a statement on Instagram. “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country – with a language barrier – and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave.”
At the same time as Lochte’s disastrous lie was unfolding, President Obama also found himself caught in a web of his own misstatements.
Earlier this month the Wall Street Journal published a story detailing how the Obama administration shipped $400 million in euros, Swiss francs and other currencies on an unmarked cargo plane to Iran the same day they released four American hostages. The Journal also reported that senior Justice Department officials, including the head of the national security division, objected to paying Iran hundreds of millions of dollars at the same time Tehran was releasing American prisoners precisely because Iran would view it as a ransom.
The White House flew into action to eliminate any talk of the “r” word, which would have been illegal under U.S. law.
“As we’ve made clear, the negotiations over the settlement of an outstanding claim…were completely separate from the discussions about returning our American citizens home,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told the Journal. “Not only were the two negotiations separate, they were conducted by different teams on each side, including, in the case of the Hague claims, by technical experts involved in these negotiations for many years.”
State Department spokespeople similarly attempted to deny any relationship between the money and the prisoner release, unequivocally stating that “there was no linkage” and arguing that this was “some kind of quid pro quo is just not accurate.”
But the Iranian government saw it differently.
“Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies,” Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Basij militia, said on Iranian media.
Seeing trouble on the horizon, the president jumped into the fray to carry the narrative fiction that this was something other than a cash-for-prisoners swap.
“We do not pay ransom for hostages,” Obama said in a press conference. “We didn’t here, and we won’t in the future, precisely because if we did we’d start encouraging Americans to be targeted.”
But the evidence continued to pile up. The Journal discovered that U.S. officials refused to allow the plane full of cash to take off until the U.S. prisoners were in the air, a clear quid pro quo arrangement that flies in the face of the administration’s assurances of two separate transactions. And eventually, the White House buckled. Last Thursday, State Department spokesman John Kirby admitted that the U.S. “took advantage of the leverage” and that the “timing of the final transactions was linked.”
Sadly, little of this back and forth matters. The semantics of “ransom” versus “fortunate timing” doesn’t matter. What matters is what Iran believes and how that belief is impacting their actions. And on that front, President Obama’s actions have been a disaster. The Wall Street Journal writes:
But the hard reality of geopolitics is about more than what a U.S. President chooses to believe. And if Mr. Obama is right that he paid no ransom, then how does he explain that Iran has taken three more Americans as hostages since those January payments? An unhappy coincidence?
What matters to American credibility is what the mullahs of Iran believe. And it’s obvious they believe that arresting and holding Americans in Iran is a useful way to extract money and other concessions from the United States. Their latest demand is for the U.S. to hand over $2 billion in Iranian funds that have been frozen for the victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism. The thugs of the world don’t care what Mr. Obama believes. They care only that he shows them the money—then they’ll release their hostages.
And then they’ll use the money to finance continued proxy wars in the Middle East. Ransom or not, that’s a terrible outcome.