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What Happens When ISIS Threatens To Behead A U.S. Pilot?

The Obama administration took pains to draw distinctions between their prisoner swap for Bowe Bergdahl and Jordan's attempt to get its captured pilot back from ISIS, but if ISIS captures an American pilot, will we really refuse to deal?

The string of murders captured on video by terrorist army ISIS continued this weekend with the cowardly beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, a week after they murdered Goto's countryman Haruna Yukawa. On Saturday afternoon, President Obama released a statement regarding the killing (Via email from The White House):

The United States condemns the heinous murder of Japanese citizen and journalist Kenji Goto by the terrorist group ISIL. Through his reporting, Mr. Goto courageously sought to convey the plight of the Syrian people to the outside world. Our thoughts are with Mr. Goto’s family and loved ones, and we stand today in solidarity with Prime Minister Abe and the Japanese people in denouncing this barbaric act. We applaud Japan’s steadfast commitment to advancing peace and prosperity in the Middle East and globally, including its generous assistance for innocent people affected by the conflicts in the region. Standing together with a broad coalition of allies and partners, the United States will continue taking decisive action to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.

Goto had been part of an ISIS-offered swap for convicted would-be suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi, whom the government of Jordan is still looking to trade for captured Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh. Last week, the White House reiterated the U.S. policy of not making concessions to terrorist groups, and took pains to draw distinctions between the deal the Jordanians are considering, and the prisoner swap that led to the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban. Essentially, the differences are that the Bergdahl deal was an end-of-hostilities prisoner swap with a group which, while reliant on terrorism as a tactic, was operating as a more locally-focused insurgency:

I don’t think that the Taliban -- the Taliban is an armed insurgency. This was a winding-down of the war in Afghanistan, and that’s why this arrangement was dealt.

Our view is, as the President said at the time, which is, as Commander-in-Chief, when he sends men and women into armed combat, he doesn’t want to leave anyone behind. That was the commitment he was following through on this.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest also elaborated on the distinctions, which were well-trod at the time of Bergdahl's release, and while the press focused on the "Gotcha!" aspect of the story ("The Taliban aren't terrorists? Does not compute! Does not compute!"), the real takeaway seemed to be that, if faced with a U.S. pilot being held by ISIS, the U.S. would not agree to any exchange.

Long discussions with several administration officials reinforced that impression, that even though it would be a difficult call, and notwithstanding efforts that would definitely be taken to rescue a captured U.S. servicemember, no deal could be made with ISIS. It is one of those scenarios, though, that is impossible to imagine, that any U.S. president could watch an American pilot get beheaded as a sacrifice to an important principle, and a correct one, or that any U.S. president would make a deal with a group like ISIS. Certainly, it would be nearly impossible to sell the no deal on the basis that ISIS and the Taliban are so very different.

As is often the case, though, things are only off the table until they are on the table. In the context of a lengthy discussion of the complexities that such a situation would entail, Earnest told me that he wouldn't "entertain the hypothetical question, but I can tell you that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, believes deeply in the principle of ensuring that any serviceman or woman who puts on the American military uniform will not be left behind.”

It is thankfully only a hypothetical now, but ISIS managed to shoot down a Jordanian pilot in an F-16, and the United States already has deployed troops who are at risk of capture. If such a capture did come to pass, the ISIS model of social media terrorism is uncharted territory, and the pressure to deal would be hard to resist. More than that, though, it seems that the conscience of this president would lead him to find a way to reconcile the competing principles of not dealing with terrorists and not leaving a soldier behind.