Trader Joe’s Exchange

“She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home,” Joe Biden told reporters after trading Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA player Brittney Griner, held in Russia for months after being convicted on drug charges. While expressing relief for Griner’s return, many criticized the exchange.  

Viktor Bout has sold sophisticated Russian weaponry to terrorist groups and communist revolutionaries alike. Before his capture in a sting operation, Bout was poised to sell 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, and five tons of explosives to FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia

“We are together in this,” Bout explained, the Americans “are my enemies also.” This global arms dealer, by some accounts one of the most dangerous men in the world, was traded straight across for a basketball player who brought marijuana products into Russia.

“This is playing Putin’s game,” former CIA man John Sipher tweeted “Bout was an actual criminal charged through a credible legal process recognized around the world. Griner was a hostage taken in order to extort us.”

Not coming home is Marc Fogel, 60, a Pennsylvania teacher imprisoned for bringing medical marijuana into Russia. Also not safe, not on a plane, and not coming home is retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, imprisoned in Russia for nearly four years on espionage charges U.S. officials say are false. 

Some observers called it the worst trade in history or “the worst trade since the Sixers swapped Charles Barkley for three guys we never heard of again.” Another possibility comes to mind from the composite character David Garrow described in Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama

On May 31, 2014, President Obama traded U.S Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl for five high-level Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Abdul Haq Wasiq was the Taliban’s intelligence minister, Mohammad Fazi served as army chief, and Khairullah Khairkhah was minister of information and culture. Noorullah Noori was governor of two Afghan provinces and along with Taliban detainee Mohammad Fazi accused of ordering massacres of ethnic Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek communities. 

By 2021, four of the released detainees, the worst of the worst, were part of the Taliban’s government in Afghanistan. Abdul Haq Wasiq, is Taliban intelligence director and Norullah Noori minister of borders and tribal affairs. Mohammad Fazi serves as deputy defense minister, and Khairulla Khairkhah minister of information and culture.

When he announced the deal in a Rose Garden ceremony, the president said, “The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.” That wasn’t exactly the case after Biden abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban in exchange for nothing. The Delaware Democrat left Americans behind and even hired the Taliban to provide airport security. In short order, a terrorist bomb claimed the lives of 13 U.S. service personnel. They weren’t safe, they didn’t get on a plane, and they came home in a box. 

Biden also played the role of arms dealer, handing the Taliban billions in sophisticated American military gear and a strategic air base. The Taliban Five, traded in 2014 for a single deserter, were doubtless thankful that Joe Biden had sweetened the deal. That, and the Bout-for-Griner trade, should be seen as part of the composite character’s great reset. 

As Paul Kengor noted in The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor, Obama’s strongest influence was an African American Communist dedicated to an all-white Soviet dictatorship. American missile defense played a major role in taking down that dictatorship. Russia also objected to American missile defense and Obama was hopeful for change. 

One of his first actions, in 2009, was to scrap missile defense for U.S. allies Poland and the Czech Republic. In 2012, Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that “missile defense” could “be solved.” Medvedev was to tell Vladimir Putin that “after my election I will have more flexibility,” so Putin should give him “more space.” Medvedev told Obama, “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.” 

Putin was the heir apparent in Russia and Joe Biden now plays Putin’s game by trading Viktor Bout for a hostage, and abandoning teacher Marc Fogel and former U.S. Marine James Whelan in their Russian prison cells. Whether that was the worst trade of all time is a tough call. 

Several American soldiers were wounded in the manhunt for Bergdahl and Senior Chief James Hatch took a bullet in the head and died. Knowing all that, and the profiles of the Taliban Five, the composite character president still went ahead with the deal. That is hard to top, but Trader Joe may have pulled it off with his Afghanistan withdrawal, which he called an “extraordinary success.” 

The struggle against terrorism, and adversaries such as Russia, is the struggle of memory against forgetting. As they rot in a Russian prison, Marc Fogel and Paul Whelan have plenty to ponder. 

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: U.S. Department of Justice via Getty Images