Early this morning (Hong Kong time), I was interviewed on CNN International (here’s the video) about the consequences of recent rescues of American citizens sentenced to long prison terms in some of the world’s worst countries—specifically, former president Bill Clinton’s mission to North Korea on August 5 to bring out journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, and Senator Jim Webb’s trip to Burma over the weekend to extract John William Yettaw.

Ling and Lee had begun 12-year terms at hard labor (though the labor had not started yet when Clinton arrived) for crossing into North Korea, and Yettaw, a strange person, had begun a seven-year term for swimming out to the residence of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won the elections of 1990, which would, under normal circumstances, have made her prime minister. Instead, the junta nullified the vote, and she has been under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

The moderator wanted to know the effects of these “ad hoc” rescue activities—her phrase, not mine.

Certainly, it’s a proper function of government to protect Americans being abused, held hostage, or wrongly incarcerated in foreign countries. But we should also beware of the risks of such actions—one of which is to put our citizens abroad in greater peril in the future from irresponsible governments that want to take hostages and gain advantages themselves. The main reason the U.S. government does not pay ransom to spring hostages is that such payments encourage more hostage-taking.

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