White House Bergdahl mess
WASHINGTON — It would be difficult, even if intended and planned, to cram more hubris, incompetence and mendacity into a humane and sympathetic act.
The lopsided trade for Bowe Bergdahl was Israeli in inspiration — a high tolerance for future military risk in order to honor a national commitment. Because that tolerance is not infinite — no soldier is worth a nuclear weapon — it is always a judgment call. My tendency is to err on the side of freeing our people in uniform, even the lost, confused and negligent ones.
But the swap of five senior Taliban figures (two of them wanted for war crimes) for a private who wandered from his post was initially controversial, even within the Obama administration. It had been questioned by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA Director Leon Panetta. The skeptical view not so much lost as left.
The president made the final call, then proceeded to a discrediting error. Obama chose to tell a simple moral story: the return of a hero. But the real Bergdahl story is enormously complex. There was, it seems, delusional naivete, a betrayal of vows, the sacrifice by comrades, and the release of dangerous enemies. And then came the White House balloon drop. It was like tacking a happy ending on to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” This communications strategy also placed Bergdahl’s parents at the center of the story — beside President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden — exposing them to scrutiny and hostility.
In a matter of days, the administration managed to offend a tremendous variety of people, starting with members of Congress. In pursuing the Bergdahl deal without congressional consultation, Obama ignored the law — a grasping and probably unconstitutional law. Americans should not be shocked by the existence of such disagreements. At the disputed boundaries between the branches, sharp elbows are often thrown.
But it is generally not a good idea to ignore the law and then insult the lawmakers. The Democratic chairman of the Senate intelligence committee was not called until two days after the photo op. The official excuses for refusing consultation have been flimsy and shifting. More importantly, the possible swap had been previously presented to members of Congress as one part of a broader political settlement with the Taliban. When the trade suddenly happened, it only determined the fate of a single man. Many in Congress, both Republican and Democrat, feel both ignored and misled. And they are likely to be far more skeptical about future prisoner releases from Guantanamo, even if consulted.
The White House also needlessly offended members of the military. When national security adviser Susan Rice claimed that Bergdahl had served with “honor and distinction,” members of his unit felt compelled to speak out, because the word “honor” actually means something to them. So did others who joined a dangerous manhunt in a warzone. The rest of us have no reason to prejudge the facts in this case, but those who served with Bergdahl have every right to present their version of events.
The Bergdahl case reveals a disturbing gap between the White House and military culture. After Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers corrected the administration’s false narrative, anonymous White House aides accused them of engaging in “Swift-boating.” Consider that a moment. While the White House (still) claims that Bergdahl served with “honor,” aides now impugn the motives of those who served beside him — and who stayed at their posts. Particularly in a time of war, why are these attacks not a firing offense?
If the White House really believes that questions raised about the swap are uniformly partisan and political — even from the military — it has adopted the thinking of the bunker.
It is also the type of thinking common while retreating. “This is what happens at the end of wars,” Obama explains. It is the tidying up on the way to the exits. The Afghan War, it appears, is already over in the president’s mind, leaving more than 30,000 American troops still in Afghanistan without much inspiration or strategic purpose. As well as leaving Afghan allies to wonder about the strength of America’s commitment to a non-Taliban future. Rather than an exit strategy, we have what Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations calls an “exit without a strategy.”
The Israeli approach to prisoner swaps is accompanied by an Israeli attitude toward enemies: Even if you are released, we will fight you as long as you fight us. The approach becomes more questionable without the attitude.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.