by William McGurn
August 10, 2018

When the Wicked Witch meets Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” she demands the ruby red slippers the Kansas farm girl is wearing.

The Good Witch advises Dorothy otherwise. “Their magic must be very powerful or she wouldn’t want them so badly,” she says.

The Magnitsky Act is something like those ruby red slippers.

Originally passed by Congress in 2012 and named for the Russian accountant found dead in his jail cell after exposing fraud involving Russian officials, it authorized the president to block travel visas and freeze bank accounts of individual Russians deemed guilty of human-rights abuses.

In 2016 it was expanded so it could be applied to other human-rights abusers anywhere in the world. We know its power the same way we know about the power of Dorothy’s red slippers: The bad guys obsess about it.

Plainly Vladimir Putin hates it. His representatives bring it up to American officials or would-be American officials any chance they get. This includes the infamous election-year Trump Tower meeting Donald Trump Jr. attended in expectation of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Now it’s the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s howling.

This past weekend he declared the Maginstky sanctions “disrespectful.” He did so after Donald Trump ordered them slapped on two senior Erdogan officials—his justice and interior ministers—for their roles in the arrest and detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who is no longer in prison but remains under house arrest.

Unlike previous presidents, Mr. Trump has elevated the cases of Americans unfairly locked up abroad. For the moment, Mr. Erdogan is resisting. Turkey, he says, has never “bowed our heads to such pressure” and never will.

On Saturday (8/04), Mr. Erdogan announced Turkey would be retaliating with sanctions on two unnamed Trump officials, probably the attorney general and the secretary of homeland security. This gesture is all but meaningless unless Jeff Sessions or Kirstjen Nielsen have financial assets in Turkey or are itching to travel there.

We’ll see whether Mr. Erdogan changes his mind, but it’s encouraging to see the Magnitsky Act invoked on behalf of our fellow citizens.

For today it isn’t just American trade that is global, it’s the American people. Though there are no hard figures on how many Americans live abroad, in 2016 the State Department reckoned it was at least nine million.

Add to this the millions more Americans who travel. Simply by being abroad, American citizens are more vulnerable to attack by terrorists or arbitrary arrest and detention by rogue regimes.

The best way the U.S. government can help keep them safe is to make clear through word and deed that messing with the liberty of an American carries a high price.

Unfortunately, up to now apprehending and mistreating Americans has cost most nations very little. Iran is one of the worst offenders. Though most of the U.S. citizens detained in Iran were freed after the 2015 nuclear deal with the Obama administration, there was a notable exception: Robert Levinson.

Secretary of State John Kerry failed to force Tehran to fess up about what happened to Mr. Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran in 2007 while on a mission for the CIA.

When there are no consequences for arbitrarily throwing an American in jail, it creates an incentive for rogue regimes simply to take another American hostage whenever a new bargaining chip is needed.

So even as five hostages were freed after the nuke deal, Iran now has in custody Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his ailing, 81-year-old father, Baquer Namazi, a former Unicef representative. The elder Mr. Namazi was arrested when he returned to Iran to try to secure his son’s release. The family is hoping Mr. Trump will make good on his campaign promise not to allow Iran to get away with such outrageous behavior.

The most notorious case was North Korea’s detention of student Otto Warmbier. Mr. Warmbier had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for trying to steal a propaganda poster. He was returned to the U.S. unconscious and unresponsive in June 2017 and died six days later. Since then, three other Americans held hostage in North Korea have been freed.

Amid the give and take of foreign policy, the plight of a single American can seem small and secondary. But not if it means abandoning a fellow American held overseas to the tender mercies of some thug government.

So good for President Trump for using the tools given to him by the Magnitsky Act on behalf of Pastor Brunson. If America First means anything, surely it means Americans First – a recognition that insisting on consequences for anyone who harms an innocent American abroad isn’t an act of charity.

It’s the foundation for a healthy U.S. foreign policy—and a much safer world.  Thank you, Mr. President.


— Protecting Americans Abroad: Why the Magnitsky Act Matters originally appeared at To The Point News. William McGurn was the Chief Speechwriter for President George W. Bush, and he now writes the Main Street column for the Wall Street Journal.