Thirty-nine years ago this month, an African American Navy bombardier-navigator named Robert Goodman was taking part in a mission to destroy Syrian munitions in Lebanon when his plane was shot down. The pilot, Mark Lange, died, and Goodman, who was twenty-seven, suffered fractured ribs and other injuries. Syrian soldiers found him and took him to a military compound in Damascus. His capture immediately provoked a complex international standoff. The Syrian government viewed him as a prisoner of war and said that he would not be released until the United States withdrew its forces from Lebanon. (Hundreds of Americans were stationed there, as part of a multinational force deployed to stabilize the region.) The incident presented a dilemma for the Reagan Administration, which had come to power in part by attacking President Jimmy Carter’s failed efforts to release fifty-two American hostages held in Iran. The White House’s inability to negotiate Goodman’s release also fostered an impression that Ronald Reagan, who had a long record of antipathy toward civil-rights causes, was unconcerned about a Black P.O.W. As the civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson saw it, according to his biographer, Marshall Frady, Reagan’s policy was in effect “just to leave Goodman there to rot.”
Later that December, in an effort to secure Goodman’s freedom, Jackson himself left for Syria with a sprawling retinue that included his personal physician, a number of reporters, and the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. After three days of negotiations, the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, agreed to release Goodman, as an act of good will. But, despite that triumph, Frady wrote, Jackson returned home to a cascade of criticism. Reagan invited Goodman, Jackson, and their families to the White House, but an Administration official reportedly said that Assad had released Goodman to Jackson mostly to embarrass Reagan—a possibility that likely did not escape Jackson, who made his first Presidential run the next year.
The Goodman case highlights both the potential of citizen diplomacy and the complications that race can impose on foreign relations. The latter issue came to the fore again on December 8th, when Brittney Griner, an American basketball player and two-time Olympic gold medallist, who had been held in Russian custody for nearly ten months, on drug-possession charges, walked across an airport tarmac in Abu Dhabi, as part of an exchange that also freed Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer serving a twenty-five-year prison sentence in the United States. As with Goodman’s case, some activists had feared that, in the midst of a foreign conflict, Griner’s identity—she is Black and queer—would make her a low priority for U.S. diplomatic efforts. The circumstances, of course, are very different: many African Americans viewed Reagan with suspicion, whereas support from Black voters was key to Joe Biden’s election. But LaTosha Brown, a founder of Black Voters Matter, a group that has been key to recent Democratic victories in Georgia, echoed Jackson when she told NBC News that, absent efforts to keep Griner’s name in the news, she might “rot in jail.” And, as with the Goodman case, Griner’s release inspired a tide of criticism—from Republicans, at least.
Donald Trump, Jr., denounced Griner as “awful” and “America hating”—an apparent reference to the fact that in 2020, following the deaths of several African Americans at the hands of police, Griner, like many other athletes, had protested the playing of the national anthem at games. Trump, Sr., who later said that his Administration had refused to swap Bout to secure the release of Paul Whelan—a former marine who, since 2018, has been held in a Russian prison on espionage charges, which he denies—called the deal “a stupid and unpatriotic embarrassment.” Representative Kevin McCarthy, of California, who has been struggling to wrangle his colleagues’ votes to become the Speaker of the House, dismissed Biden’s deal as “a gift to Vladimir Putin.”
The main theme of the Republican criticism was a supposed weakness in releasing an international war criminal to bring Griner home. Making this argument required a profound tolerance for hypocrisy, given that those huffing about the necessity of keeping an arms dealer in prison belong to a party that has made access to firearms so obscenely sacrosanct that guns have become the leading cause of death for American children. Yet there was an obvious asymmetry in the scene in Abu Dhabi, as the thirty-two-year-old Olympian ambled past the fifty-five-year-old arms trafficker. They had both been convicted of violating laws, but only one of those convictions had a body count attached to it.
By comparison, the U.S. brokered a deal with Russia in April that freed Trevor Reed, a former marine serving nine years on charges of endangering a Russian police officer during an altercation—charges he denied—in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving twenty years on charges related to attempts to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. Those offenses were not equivalent (the Biden team was acting in part on reports of Reed’s declining health), but the deal was not nearly as lopsided as trading a man known as the Merchant of Death for a basketball player who said that she had unintentionally carried a vape cartridge with hash oil in her luggage.
So the exchange was a victory for Griner, her family, and her supporters, but also, to a significant degree, for Putin, who, amid his blunders in Ukraine, can placate his nationalist critics by proclaiming that he played hardball with the U.S. During a press conference after Griner’s release, the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, confirmed the Russian intransigence, saying that American negotiators had not been able to secure the release of Whelan because “the choice became to either bring Brittney home or no one.” Putin, having been shaped by a Cold War-era K.G.B. that specialized in manipulating U.S. racial tensions, was almost certainly aware that a perception that Griner might receive insufficient attention could be used to his advantage. The activism that resulted from that perception no doubt helped push the Biden Administration to make a deal rather than to risk repeating the miscalculations of the Reagan Administration.
Still, the Griner affair may yet reiterate a crucial lesson of December, 1983—that inequality, or even the appearance of inequality, is not only a liability at home but an impediment in foreign affairs. The irony is that Putin, in the most cynical way possible, has demonstrated that Black lives really do matter, by highlighting just how much you can achieve by placing one in jeopardy. ♦
This content was originally published here.