Brittney Griner and the Limits of American Power


Brittney Griner is many things. A truly extraordinary basketball player. The embodiment of the promises made by feminism, generally, and Title IX, specifically, to a generation of American girls. A wealthy celebrity. An L.G.B.T. icon.

And now, she is also a living symbol of the limits of American power, and of the American government’s finite ability to protect its citizens abroad.

On Feb. 17, Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. Russian authorities, claiming to have found vape cartridges in her luggage containing a small amount of hashish oil, arrested her on drug smuggling charges. Seven days later, on Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. The U.S. State Department considers Griner “wrongfully detained” and has made diplomatic efforts to secure her release.

So far, the U.S. has not been successful. As outrage mounts over her continued detention, many in America have wondered publicly if officials could be doing more to secure Griner’s release. LeBron James, the argument goes, would have been freed long ago.

The theory that somewhere in the White House there is a lever marked “pull in case of LeBron” — a sort of V.I.P. lane for exercising American power — is grounded in the optimistic belief that such power exists.

In fact, experts say, the reality is simpler but more disturbing: Sometimes there is no LeBron lever. American power is limited, and although political will can channel it, it cannot create more of it. And so for Griner, and other Americans held overseas, the road home may be long, and slow.

In many contexts, American citizenship is still a powerful form of protection overseas.

“When you’re messing with Americans, you’re really testing the entirety of the U.S. might,” said Luke Hartig, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, who now advises several organizations working to free U.S. citizens held overseas. “That can be things like the ability of the U.S. to use military power against you, sanctions against you, diplomatic tools against you.”

But for countries hostile to the United States, such as Russia, Iran, or Syria — who are already under U.S. sanctions, engaged in direct or proxy conflicts, and locked in complex diplomatic negotiations — that calculus can be different. Taking American prisoners can be a form of leverage: a valuable asset that can be exchanged on the shadowy market of hostage diplomacy.

That puts the United States in a bind. Negotiations can secure the release of Americans. But offering a quid pro quo for prisoners’ release can create an incentive for hostile states and other armed groups to detain even more Americans.

In part for that reason, American officials often say publicly that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists. But while there are some hard limits — it is illegal to give cash payments to a designated terrorist organization, for example — other forms of exchange do go forward. For instance, in 2015 the U.S. released five senior Taliban officials from the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay in order to secure the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier kidnapped by the Taliban. The released prisoners became high-ranking officials in the Taliban government in exile.

“We have this quite horrifying trend of Americans being arrested under the color and guise of law by the United States’ worst adversaries around the world,” said Danielle A. Gilbert, an assistant professor of Military & Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, who is literally writing the book on the dynamics of hostage taking in international politics. “And at the moment, the very thing that the United States government has to do to bring people home is the very thing that’s going to advertise for the rest of the world that this is a successful strategy, and they should keep doing it.”

There is a myth etched deeply into American politics that showing sufficient resolve and political will is enough to accomplish foreign-policy goals, including securing hostage releases, without painful concessions or negotiations.

It shows up, for instance, in claims that the Iran hostage crisis ended in 1981 because Ronald Reagan’s perceived strength as a wielder of American power. (In fact, the release was negotiated by the Carter administration.)

The myth suggests that safety is available to Americans, at home and abroad, if they simply elect a steadfast president. But the grim reality is that complicated geopolitical standoffs may not be possible to resolve quickly, or at all. Cases like Griner’s can take months or even years to resolve, Gilbert said.

Trevor Reed, another American detained by Russia, was held for two years on what appear to be bogus charges of assault before the White House secured his release in a prisoner swap after he fell ill with tuberculosis. Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges, has been held in a Russian prison since 2018. His friends and family are calling for him to be included in any deal for Griner’s release.

The longest-held American prisoner in Iran, Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman, has been detained since 2015.

“It doesn’t cost the Russian or the Iranian government anything to keep holding on to the Americans for much longer,” Gilbert said. “They are just hoping that the pressure builds for the United States to give in to egregious demands.”

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