If President Barack Obama wants to secure his legacy, he certainly doesn’t want to leave any missing Americans behind in the Middle East.
Austin Tice disappeared in Syria in August 2012 while working as a freelance journalist for McClatchy and The Washington Post. Besides a brief video clip posted about six weeks later showing him with unknown gunmen, there have been no confirmed sightings.
Tice, now 34, is the only American reporter known to be held hostage anywhere in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders, which has a #FreeAustinTice campaign.
At his final White House Correspondents Dinner in April, the president honored journalist Jason Rezaian, freed in January after 18 months in an Iranian prison. He also made a pledge “to fight for the release of American journalists held against their will.”
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“We will not stop until they see the same freedom as Jason had,” he declared.
He must keep that promise – yes, for the sake of Tice’s loved ones, but also for all of us. The free flow of information, especially from war zones, is a core American principle that terrorist groups and dictators would dearly like to destroy.
Obama should also listen closely to the parents of two American journalists and two aid workers who were taken hostage and killed by terrorist groups. They have to live with what no parent should have to endure – the death of a child – and theirs were tortured and killed in horrific ways to worldwide media attention. They are adding their voices trying to help Tice and his parents.
“Our hearts are broken and our hope is that our government will do all it is able to bring Austin and all hostages home safely,” the parents of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller wrote in a lump-in-your-throat plea published Wednesday in The Sacramento Bee and other McClatchy newspapers and websites.
“No additional U.S. citizens should have to endure the silence of our country, with that silence filled only by the terrorists holding them.”
After families of hostages and others complained, Obama rightly ordered a new policy a year ago. While the U.S. doesn’t pay ransoms or swap prisoners – and shouldn’t – it no longer bans communications with those holding Americans and will no longer prosecute families who offer ransoms.
This is a more humane policy, but as Reporters Without Borders says, administration officials “must show they are equal to the hopes they have raised.”
In their joint letter, the families say they are not asking the White House to put anyone in harm’s way or to compromise national security to rescue Tice. So it’s going to take the difficult and sensitive work of diplomacy.
While these other American hostages were held by the Islamic State, it’s believed that Tice is in the custody of loyalists of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. The Guardian reported last year the State Department said it was working with the Syrian regime and through Czech intermediaries. If Obama hasn’t done so already, his administration needs to talk directly to Assad about Tice.
This diplomacy will be done quietly, so the president may not be able to say much publicly. But he should privately reassure Tice’s parents that every effort is being made.
The U.S. military has a solemn creed: No soldier left behind. The same should hold true for Austin Tice.