Compassion Versus Incentives: Iranian Hostages, Venezuelan Migrants, and Russian Aggressors

Here's a familiar proposition: We don't negotiate with hostage takers, lest we thereby incentivize more hostage taking. Most repeat players--including sovereign nations like the United States--purport to follow this policy in various contexts, but it is difficult to maintain in practice. There is inevitably a humanitarian urge and often political pressure to do what is necessary to secure the release of hostages.

Sometimes one can say--as the U.S. government has been saying with respect to the recent release of five Americans who were being unlawfully detained by Iran--that the agreement won't actually create dangerous incentives. In the most recent instance, the Biden administration has combated claims by critics who say it gave Iran billions of dollars in exchange for hostages by noting that the money had been earned lawfully by Iran through sanctions-exempt sales of oil to South Korea. That's technically true. It's also probably true that the five Iranians released as part of the deal did not pose a national security threat; they were facing charges of violating sanctions, not terrorism. Even so, the fact is that by releasing hostages, Iran obtained what it didn't previously have, which at some level amounts to a reward for hostage taking and thus an incentive for future hostage taking. 

To be clear, I'm not saying that the Biden administration was wrong to make this deal. It might even have collateral net benefits in the form of progress towards reviving the nuclear deal that the Trump administration killed. But I am saying that the arrangement was fairly typical of this sort of thing: proclamation of a categorical refusal to negotiate with hostage takers, followed by negotiations with hostage takers and an attempt to characterize the resulting deal as something other than an incentive for more hostage taking.

The logic applies as well to other circumstances, even if there are no blameworthy actors. Consider that for a number of years, gang violence, poverty, and general desperation have driven millions of people in Latin America--especially from Venezuela and the northern triangle countries of central America--to flee their homes and seek a new start in the United States. Many of the migrants legally qualify for asylum (although proving as much can be difficult) because they in fact have reasonable fears of persecution in their home countries, but many do not, which is not to say that they are bad actors. Desperate poverty is not a legal basis for asylum, but it is a perfectly understandable reason why someone would risk life and limb to try to build a better life elsewhere.

Migrants who have temporarily settled in U.S. cities--especially New York City--have lately placed a great strain on local resources and caused a rift in the Democratic Party, with NYC Mayor Eric Adams and NY State Governor Kathy Hochul having loudly and repeatedly called on the Biden administration to change regulations that forbid persons awaiting asylum hearings to work. This week, the administration heeded their call, at least for Venezuelan migrants. While the policy change is humane and understandable with respect to the migrants already here, it creates a further incentive for additional border crossings.

A sensible response would be comprehensive immigration reform that would allow many many more people to immigrate legally. Even such a reform would not necessarily be a panacea, as there may be more potential migrants who would wish to enter than the country can absorb in real time. However, the point is largely academic because as a political matter we are nowhere near even ameliorative reform. Although as recently as the George W. Bush administration, there was a substantial wing of the Republican Party that favored immigration liberalization, the now-Trump-dominated version of the Party would rather demonize immigrants than work to ease the crisis. Hence, as a matter of practical reality, Biden's granting of temporary status for the Venezuelan migrants could result in more undocumented entries.

Again and to be clear, the now-standard Republican stance is cruel and hypocritical. A party whose leaders refer to just about all Democrats as "the radical left" is apparently utterly indifferent to the fate of millions of Venezuelans suffering under an actual leftist regime.

In each of the two foregoing examples--negotiating with Iran to secure hostages and easing work rules for Venezuelan migrants--the Biden administration essentially bit the bullet and adopted a humanitarian policy despite its potentially harmful incentive effects, while Republicans sniped about just those incentives. With that in mind, how do we explain so many (although hardly all) Republicans' apparent disregard of incentive effects with respect to Ukraine?

In his pleas to Western leaders and their populations, Volodomyr Zelensky has repeatedly argued that his country's fight is also the fight of every democratic country. He contends that if Russia is rewarded by territorial expansion for its unprovoked aggression as well as its commission of war crimes, then it and other militant authoritarian leaders will commit further acts of aggression. That appeal was initially well received in the U.S. and Europe, but it increasingly meets resistance, especially from the hard right.

How should we understand that resistance? Consider some possibilities.

(1) One might think that while allowing Russia to seize parts of Ukraine by force does indeed create incentives for similar actions elsewhere, and thus that, say, Taiwan would be eager to see Russia fail in its conquest, the U.S. stands on a different footing. As a nuclear power, we need not fear direct Russian aggression. This calculation is, in my view, cold and ultimately wrong, but it doesn't ignore the negative incentive effects of giving in to Russian aggression: it says those effects are outweighed by the financial cost to the U.S. of further supplying Ukraine with weapons and by the risks the ongoing war in Ukraine creates of a direct conflict with Russia, which would be catastrophic.

(2) Another, potentially complementary, rationale for opposing further aid is a kind of brutally realistic assessment of the military situation. The Ukrainian counter-offensive has made very slow progress, the "fighting season" will soon end, and thus the war can drag on for years. That will lead to additional terrible losses of life, trauma, and all of the horrors of war. And it probably won't result in Ukraine regaining much more or any of the territory that Russia has seized. Thus, in this view, unpleasant as it is to reward Putin's aggression, it is better to negotiate a peace on distasteful terms now than to do so after additional months or years of stalemated fighting during which, in addition to the direct suffering that results, there is a persistent risk of catastrophic escalation.

I should be clear that I don't accept this logic, because I don't think that continuing to arm Ukraine is inconsistent with pursuing diplomatic options to resolve the conflict even on substantially less than optimal terms. Indeed, it strikes me that continued support enables Ukraine to negotiate from a position of strength. That said, the logic of this second possible explanation for opposition to further aid does not deny that making peace on anything less than the condition that Russia surrender all of the territory it seized provides some incentive for further acts of aggressive war in violation of international law; it simply regards that painful cost as justified by countervailing considerations.

(3) I imagine that there are some Republicans (and Democrats) who oppose further aid to Ukraine on one or both of the foregoing grounds. Others may have other reasons. Some--like Rand Paul--are long-time isolationists. Some (especially on the quite small left in the U.S.) regard all U.S. military activity in the world as neo-imperialist. Still others might have legitimate concerns about corruption. Some substantial portion of American military aid, whether spent in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, or elsewhere, tends to be diverted from its intended purposes.

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Thus, while I don't agree with the opponents of further aid to Ukraine, I acknowledge that some such opponents are making cost-benefit calculations of the sort that the government makes when it decides to negotiate with hostage takers or to adopt humanitarian immigration policies that may increase the number of migrants over the long run.

(4) And yet, given Donald Trump's admiration for authoritarians, including especially Putin, his demonstrated willingness to try to blackmail Zelensky in the "perfect phone call" that led to his first impeachment, and the overall authoritarian drift of the Trumpist Republican Party, there is another, more straightforward explanation for Republican opposition to further aid to Ukraine. The Trumpists do not regard rewarding Putin for his aggression as a cost of the policy; they regard it as a benefit because they see Putin and other authoritarians around the world as allies and role models.

Accordingly, we can acquit the worst of the Republicans of the charge of failure to see how their opposition to further aid to Ukraine incentivizes authoritarians to violate international law and commit war crimes. As would-be authoritarians themselves, they see that consequence as a feature of their stance, not a bug.