It’s admirable that Biden wants to work with his political adversaries in the Republican Party. But after their wretched behavior since the election, the leaders of the Republican Party don’t deserve an olive branch from the incoming administration. Biden is right, though, that the United States will require bipartisan cooperation to thrive again. The trick is finding issues that reach past the petty politics of division. Hostage recovery might be the clearest example of that, and continuity in policy is critical, both in the mission to ensure hostages return home and in caring for their fragile families.
According to recent data published the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, a leading hostage and press freedom advocacy group, there are currently at least 43 American citizens being held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad. Some of them are well-known cases, including Post contributor Austin Tice in Syria; Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed in Russia; U.K.-born dual national Morad Tahbaz, Siamak Namazi and Baquer Namazi in Iran; Mark Frerichs in Afghanistan; and the so-called Citgo 6, six executives of the oil giant being held in Venezuela.
Others are not so high-profile, but no less tragic.
President Barack Obama started this position to address the growing problem of Americans being taken hostage abroad. Previous efforts to win the release of hostages were often complicated by a lack of interagency cooperation, and the envoy helped streamline the process. President Trump, to his credit, has used the office effectively to free several Americans.
A smooth transition between administrations is vital to avoid derailing progress in the efforts to release hostages that are already underway. Since assuming his position last March, Carstens has prioritized infrastructure in the hostage recovery process that will ensure there are never gaps in the event of changes in staff. He should be given the opportunity to see it through.
Across multiple conversations, Carstens has told me that “every day an American is being held hostage abroad means I have failed to accomplish my mission.” As a former hostage, and someone who regularly communicates with the families of current hostages, I think this is precisely the attitude you want from your main advocate in government.
Several family members I spoke with whose loved ones are being held hostage feel strongly that Carstens should stay, as do diplomats of key U.S. allies and the heads of several nongovernmental organizations working on hostage issues.
“This responsibility is so important that you can’t just look at a candidate’s credentials alone. This takes a particular personality and type of dedication. When someone is doing the job so well, replacing them would be crazy,” said Elizabeth Whelan, whose brother Paul has been held in Russia for more than two years.
Whelan and other families spoke about Carstens’s proactive commitment to each case; he regularly checks in with relatives by phone to provide updates and to show that someone in the U.S. government cares and is fighting for them. The importance of this can’t be overstated. But that’s not to say that Carstens is simply playing the role of social worker.
“I consider Roger a bit of a cowboy, and I mean that in a positive way. He’s not a suit,” Whelan said. “He’s capable of working in that bureaucratic environment, but he’s on a mission to get all these guys home. These people have real meaning to him. They aren’t just pieces of paper in a folder.”
This job requires someone who is willing to engage with adversaries, travel to dangerous places if necessary, and provide support to families and returning hostages as they try to navigate the complexities of government bureaucracy. Carstens has this rare combination of attributes, and Biden should put those skills to good use.
After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy, Carstens joined the Army’s Special Forces — the Green Berets — where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He then worked for an NGO that delivered humanitarian aid from Jordan into southern Syria. His first job in the Trump administration was deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the State Department.
He also has a master’s degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, where he studied the “great books,” as he put it.
“The books I read at St. John’s reminded me, though, of my responsibility to help bring others to their freedom,” Carstens once told me.
If Biden is looking for an issue around which he can build a bipartisan bridge, I can think of none more appropriate than working together for the safe return of Americans held hostage abroad. Carstens is the right sort of mission-driven public servant to lead the effort.
Countless initiatives are disrupted by the transition from one administration to the next. But with the lives of fellow Americans at stake, politics should not interfere with a job well done.