by Stephen R. Weissman
Special to WJW
In a shocking video released May 6, Warren Weinstein, a Jewish American from Rockville held captive by al-Qaida, begged President Obama to act "quickly" on various al-Qaida political demands or "I die." The U.S. and Pakistan are reportedly searching for Weinstein, who was kidnapped nine months ago, but time is growing short. And even a rescue operation would be hazardous. The U.S. can and should do more to prevent this assassination.
As I came to know him, Warren is a most implausible hostage for al-Qaida. I first heard of him in 1974 when he wrote a review of my book on American foreign policy in the Congo. Professor Weinstein judged that "American intervention did not help the Congo overcome its problems." He was particularly disturbed by the CIA's "tampering with Congolese politics," which "was anything but demonstrative of how to seek democratic solutions to Congolese problems." He also noted the failure of even the most idealistic liberal policy makers to "understand fully the nature of the arena in which they had intervened" and how "the internal context of the client state acts as a prism turning influence in directions which may be totally undesired or unintended by the patron."
Warren's skepticism about U.S. military and political intervention and his search for ways of relating to foreign countries that respected their "internal context" came through to me again when I joined the staff of the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Africa in 1979. One day, I recall, he came into my office with a Muslim judge from Senegal. They were working together on a project to advance a human rights charter for the Organization for African Unity.
We talked subsequently when he was successfully seeking a job as Peace Corps director in Africa. He wanted to focus on grass roots rather than top-down economic development. I last saw Warren more than 20 years ago in his office at a branch of the World Bank that specialized in private sector development. We had a long and constructive discussion about my subcommittee's legislation to transform the aid program for Africa into a vehicle for equitable and environmentally sustainable development.
Nothing that I have learned about his subsequent work, including his last several years as a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor developing small businesses in Pakistan, has changed my image of him: a culturally sensitive, pragmatic, democratic idealist with absolutely none of the "crusader" mentality that al-Qaida decries. It is deeply ironic that it is Weinstein who is the hostage for al-Qaida's demands for curbing Western military intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
What else can be done? President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton should address al-Qaida directly, laying out clearly who Warren Weinstein really is - what he has believed in and accomplished - demonstrating that threatening his life is not only wrong but also inconsistent with the group's proclaimed grievances. By doing so, the president or secretary of state would be giving al-Qaida some of the high-level recognition of its survival that it is obviously seeking after the death of its own leader, thereby lessening its incentive to obtain the same attention by murdering Weinstein. At the same time, it would throw al-Qaida on the defensive with its constituency (including Africans and South Asians) as to why it wants to kill this particular man.
This suggestion does not entail negotiating the political demands of the terrorists. Nor is it vulnerable to potential criticism by the Republican opposition that the administration is "apologizing" for U.S. actions. Having a high U.S. official address al-Qaida on behalf of Weinstein will not materially increase the terrorist group's power nor will it change U.S. policy. American forces will continue to recognize that al-Qaida is a threat and hammer it every day.
I do not know if such an initiative would succeed. But it may be the only chance of saving Warren Weinstein's valuable life.
Stephen R. Weissman is former staff director of the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Africa.