When a president goes rogue
WASHINGTON — What Winston Churchill said of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles — that he was a bull who carried his own china shop around with him — is true of Susan Rice, who is, to be polite, accident prone. When in September 2012 she was deputed to sell to the public the fable that the Benghazi attack was just an unfortunately vigorous movie review — a response to an Internet video — it could have been that she, rather than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was given this degrading duty because Rice was merely U.N. ambassador, an ornamental position at an inconsequential institution. Today, however, Rice is Barack Obama’s national security adviser, so two conclusions must be drawn.
Perhaps she did not know, in advance of the swap of five terrorists for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the, shall we say, ambiguities about Bergdahl’s departure from his platoon in Afghanistan, and the reportedly deadly consequences of his behavior. If so, then she has pioneered a degree of incompetence exotic even for this 10-thumbed administration. If, however, she did know, and still allowed Obama to present this as a mellow moment of national satisfaction, she is condign punishment for his choice of such hirelings.
Perhaps this exchange really is, as Obama said in defending it, an excellent thing “regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be.” His confidence in its excellence is striking, considering that he acknowledges that we do not know the facts about what would seem to be important “circumstances.”
Such as the note Bergdahl reportedly left before disappearing, in which he supposedly said he did not approve of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. And the notably strong and numerous expressions of anger by members of Bergdahl’s battalion concerning his comportment and its costs.
Obama did not comply with the law requiring presidents to notify Congress 30 days before such exchanges. Politico can be cited about this not because among the media it is exceptionally, well, understanding of Obama’s exuberant notion of executive latitude but because it is not. Politico headlined a story on his noncompliance with the law “Obama May Finally Be Going Rogue on Gitmo.” Politico said Obama’s “assertive” act “defied Congress” — Congress, not the rule of law — in order “to get that process (of closing Guantanamo Bay prison) moving.” It sent “a clear message” that “Obama is now willing to wield his executive powers to get the job done.” Or, as used to be said in extenuation of strong leaders, “to make the trains run on time.”
The 44th president, channeling — not for the first time — the 37th (in his post-impeachment conversation with David Frost), may say: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Already the administration says events dictated a speed that precluded complying with the law.
This explanation should be accorded open-minded, but not empty-minded, consideration. It should be considered in light of the fact that as the Veterans Affairs debacle continued, Obama went to Afghanistan to hug some troops, then completed the terrorists-for-Bergdahl transaction. And in light of the fact that Obama waged a seven-month military intervention in Libya’s civil war without complying with the law (the War Powers Resolution) that requires presidents to terminate within 60 to 90 days a military action not authorized or subsequently approved by Congress.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, says the administration told him he would be notified about negotiations for the release of terrorists. He now says he cannot “believe a thing this president says.”
Obama says his agents “consulted with Congress for quite some time” about prisoner exchanges with the Taliban. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says there have been no consultations since 2011. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., says “I don’t like it when the White House says the intelligence committees were briefed. Because we weren’t.” He says Obama is “referring to … 2011-2012, when I was still in grade school.”
Now, now. “Assertive” presidents can’t be expected to “go rogue” without ruffling feathers. And omelets cannot be made without breaking eggs. Etc.
This episode will be examined by congressional committees, if they can pierce the administration’s coming cover-up, which has been foreshadowed by the response to congressional attempts to scrutinize the politicization of the IRS. If the military stalls on turning over files to Congress pertaining to the five years of Bergdahl’s absence, we will at least know that there is no national institution remaining to be corrupted.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.