In a lot of circles, President Obama has been savaged over the last week for agreeing to a deal that included the transfer of five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the last remaining American prisoner of war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl, who was captured under uncertain circumstances, had been held by the Taliban since 2009.
The controversy around the Bergdahl release has come from a lot of directions. There has been pushback from Congress and accusations that the deal wasn’t carried out in compliance with legal requirements. In the tussle over the controversial prison at Guantanamo Bay, Congress sought to limit the President’s ability to transfer detainees; now, there are allegations that the President ignored those requirements.
There are some good points there. It is proper and healthy for Congress to try to check the executive’s use of power. Most of the time, those allegations are self-serving, but better that than the President be allowed free reign.
On a related note, there have been accusations that releasing high-level Taliban operatives might pose a risk to American security. On this point, there has been orders of magnitude more talk than insight. Simply put, very few people in this country are in a position to have an informed opinion. How worried we should be depends on a good understanding of who these people are, what the Taliban’s current capacity is, what our intelligence assets in the region are, and what the Qataris are prepared to do to help, both formally and informally.
(The prisoners are being released to Qatar, who has agreed not to allow them to leave the country for one year.)
Much of that information is classified. But a few things are clear. First, these are really unsavory characters who could potentially pose a serious threat. Second, we were going to have to do something with them at some point. You can’t just hold people forever without trial. And third, these five men are not ten feet tall. Whatever the dangers of their release, they won’t return to Afghanistan the way Lenin returned to Russia. In the whole history of the world, there are very few actual supervillians.
If that were the end of it, there wouldn’t be too much to say here. It’s a messy situation with a lot of moving parts – a good opportunity for pushback equal parts oversight and political opportunism. Of course, though, that hasn’t been the end of it.
There’s also the small matter of Sgt. Bergdahl.
In the days since the deal was announced, there has been a clear and coordinated effort to publicly destroy the image of Sgt. Bergdahl and his family as a way to turn the release of the last American POW into a political scandal. Bergdahl has been called everything from a deserter to a traitor. His father’s facial hair has become the subject of (inane) political commentary. Even the emails they shared before his capture have been used as fodder.
I don’t know how Sgt. Bergdahl was captured. I don’t know whether or not he deserted. (Neither do you). In the firestorm, a lot of disturbing details have emerged. And some of the men he served with have been publicly critical of him – as is their right.
Whatever the case may be, it seems clear that now isn’t the time to lionize Sgt. Bergdahl, but in some circles that has turned into an argument that Sgt. Bergdahl was not worth making a deal for, and that his family – particularly his father – are more deserving of scorn than sympathy. Sgt. Bergdahl’s hometown in Idaho was forced to cancel their planned homecoming amidst the uncertainty and fear of protests.
The whole state of the conversation around this is both deeply distressing and profoundly saddening. Sometimes in a fight, the most relevant question is who’s right and who’s wrong, but sometimes the most relevant question is, “How in the world did we end up fighting like this?”
The truth is that Sgt. Bergdahl volunteered for a war that most Americans were happy to stay home and forget about. He seemed to have been ambivalent about the war, and about much more. But, so what? A lot of Americans are. A lot of American servicemen and servicewomen are ambivalent about a lot of things, yet they honor the commitment they made to serve, often despite their deep misgivings about their elected leaders, because that’s the nature of the commitment they made.
In turn, we should honor our commitment to their service, even despite our potential misgivings about the circumstances of their capture, because that’s the nature of the commitment that we’ve made. That commitment involves watching over their loved ones, taking care of their wounds, and doing everything in our power not to abandon them overseas. How did that – what would have been an easy applause line during most of our history – suddenly become a controversial position?
To say nothing of the disgusting public scrutiny that the Bergdahl family has been subjected to. Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents have endured the unimaginable ordeal of their son’s captivity for five years, at any given moment not knowing if he was being tortured and not knowing if they would ever see him again. They’re entitled to be left alone, not to be used as a political football.
All of this is made worse by the obvious cynicism that has marked so much of the conversation. Here’s John McCain telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that he would have rejected the deal that brought Sgt. Bergdahl home.
And here’s John McCain telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he would accept a swap of the exact same five Taliban prisoners that were later released for Sgt. Bergdahl.
Now, Senator McCain is saying that the difference between the hypothetical deal he would have accepted in February and the functionally identical deal he’s decrying as “totally unacceptable” today comes down to the details. Which details? Good question.
That this is coming from a man who himself spent years as a prisoner of war is both bewildering and infuriating.
I can’t tell you whether the deal that led to the release of Sgt. Bergdahl was a good idea. My strong inclination is to side with those who emphasize our commitment to bring our fighting men and women home, but obviously not every deal that leads to that outcome would be acceptable. Though a prisoner exchange at the end of a military conflict seems like pretty standard faire, and if you want to get someone who’s important to you, you’re going to have to give up someone who’s important to them. That’s how negotiations work.
But here’s a thought experiment: imagine that this deal hadn’t been done, and that Sgt. Bergdahl had instead died in captivity. Imagine that the Taliban had executed him. How do you think that would be covered? Do you think that the Republicans would be flocking to defend President Obama? That they would be telling the public that the President had done the right thing by refusing to negotiate? That these five prisoners where too precious or too dangerous to give up in exchange for a potential deserter?
Or do you think that they would be pillorying him with as much aplomb, calling him weak and accusing him of abandoning a soldier?
The furore over the release of Sgt. Bergdahl has given us all pretty good evidence that the only thing that matters is the scandal. When the only thing you care about is going on the attack, one outcome is as good as another.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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