A slim majority of National Journal's National Security Insiders said the Obama administration made the right decision to release five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
"We have a moral commitment to bring home our soldiers," one Insider said. "Quibbling over the net benefit of the president's prisoner exchange when an American POW is brought home should be deeply offensive."
Some Insiders tempered their optimism. "Time will tell if it was the best decision. It was right to obtain the release of an American soldier, who in time should be held accountable for his actions," one Insider said. "The U.S. should develop action plans to prevent the five released detainees from ever rejoining the fight against the West."
The Obama administration, several Insiders speculated, may have "private understandings" with the Taliban that will lead to a bigger dialogue over stability in the region—and the Bergdahl swap may be a confidence-building measure.
"Lost in the Washington furor ... is the fact that a very important connection with the Taliban has been established," another Insider added. "The administration should ignore the uproar and keep the contact alive. The U.S. will, sooner rather than later, need to make a truly important deal or two with the Taliban, distasteful as that will be inside the Washington Beltway." As another Insider put it: "If it leads to regional stability in Afghanistan/Pakistan, it is worth it."
A vocal 48 percent minority opposed the prisoner exchange. "Now every group who has a prisoner they want freed knows precisely what they need to do to get their man out. The safety of all Americans—and especially members of our military—has just been diminished," one Insider said. "And I would like to know how many Americans died in connection with efforts to capture the five men who've just been freed. How do you explain the trade that was just made to their loved ones?"
Separately, all of the Insiders responding to the survey said Eric Shinseki's resignation as the head of the Veterans Affairs Department will not fix the problems in the massive VA health care system.
"The problems are of long-standing; they will succeed Shinseki," one Insider said. "As long as the Congress and the White House are willing to keep throwing money at the VA, and they have been for decades, there will be little incentive to create a more efficient system. More money does not mean better care; it means more bureaucrats and more process. The new secretary needs to get tough and stop asking for more."
Shinseki, another Insider said, is "clearly a sacrificial lamb—but someone needed to take the fall for the massive problems that have been exposed. It's not unfair to hold the Secretary accountable, but it's also unfair to suggest that he alone was the problem and that by replacing him the problem will be fixed." Put simply, as another Insider said, Shinseki was "the captain of the ship, and so had to go, but the problem is in the engine room."
It may be difficult to find someone to take the helm, another Insider noted. "It will be difficult to get a new secretary confirmed. Few will want the job, and even fewer are more qualified than Eric Shinseki."
1. Did the Obama administration make the right decision to release five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl?
- Yes – 52%
- No - 48%
"Good move to keep clearing Guantanamo person by person. Bergdahl is no prize, but we retrieve our own. Good riddance to the terrorists."
"Yes, but only if this is designed to facilitate more ambitious talks. If not, then we spent scarce leverage with the Taliban for too little."
"There was no other way to bring him home alive."
"The obligation to conduct a prisoner-of-war exchange was absolute. These men should have been classified as POWs from the start. They were not because the Bush administration wanted to torture them."
"This was a prisoner exchange, not a simple release of five detainees. Further, over the long term, how were we to dispose of these prisoners, particularly after the U.S. completes its combat role in Afghanistan? Better to get something for them than nothing."
"The United States is engaged in a war in Afghanistan. Exchanges of prisoners have long been a standard and accepted part of warfare."
"Yes, the USG must set a consistent practice of 'bring our troops home.' Our soldiers cannot expect less, regardless of the cost. If these five Taliban leaders break from Qatar, then we need to track them down, as should Qatar."
"Only by a hair. Decision would be more defensible if the administration had an Afghanistan strategy that envisioned continuing American involvement."
"The human impulse is clear, but when the U.S. shows it has a policy of negotiating for prisoners, we also create incentives for greater hostage-taking. Not knowing the precise deal, I cannot say whether this increased likelihood was worth it. But turning it into a political football as Republicans are doing in Congress is clearly wrong and against our national interest."
"This was a legitimate prisoner swap; we tend to forget that the Taliban was the government of a nation-state when the detainees were captured. President Obama made the right decision to secure the release of an American soldier."
"In principle, yes, but they have made themselves look foolish with a hero's welcome knowing full well that he is, at the least, a deserter. POTUS would do himself a favor by just keeping Susan Rice away from the Sunday talk shows."
"Prisoner swaps are not new; they happen in war. And it is important for service members to know that they will not be left to languish. The trick will be to ensure these guys don't go back to the fight. Also, the same standard should be applied to all civilians serving the country in war zones and risking their lives."
"To negotiate with terrorists invites kidnapping. To do so for someone who was AWOL, and to break the law in the process, is simply beyond comprehension."
"Snubbing Congress was an unforced error."
"It creates a strong impression around the world that the U.S. has conceded in its policy of not negotiating with terrorists. This political cost and that of allowing five senior terrorists to leave Qatari control a year from now are far greater than the benefit of returning Bergdahl. If later he is found to have deserted, the cost will seem even higher."
"He set a dangerous precedent and even incentive for terrorists to kidnap Americans who can be used as pawns or collateral for negotiations or prisoner swaps. One U.S. sergeant's freedom was not worth letting loose five top Taliban terrorists."
"This will put American civilians and military personnel deployed overseas at risk."
"This is an agreement that will only look worse over time."
"Unless there is a classified aspect to this case not made public, it appears as though this was not thought through from a strategic or political perspective."
"History will judge this as one of the most significant foreign policy failures of this administration."
"The sergeant was a deserter, and his desertion caused six U.S. troops to die trying to find him. Also, the Taliban released were top Taliban operatives who are the most dangerous and most likely to cause additional death and destruction, not only in the region, perhaps in our area as well."
"Bad decision, and rollout was even worse."
"It was an illegal act that set free known terrorists who are likely to resume jihad against America and its citizens."
"This exchange releases capable and motivated terrorists back into society."
"The deal would be hard to defend under any circumstances, but particularly for a deserter."
"Very bad deal, and plays into the hands of administration critics who question competence on security and foreign policy matters."
"Dumb move. Ignoring whether Bergdahl was a deserter, we just set up every U.S. soldier for kidnapping by al-Qaida or the Taliban. It is clearly part of the administration's rush to clear out of Afghanistan and clear the decks for the 2014/16 elections."
"One for one perhaps, but not these particular Taliban leaders and certainly not five of them."
"Of course it is good to get our man back, but this is a little bit like trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees. One team got the better end of the deal, and it wasn't us."
2. Will Eric Shinseki's resignation as the head of the Veterans Affairs Department fix the problems in the massive VA health care system?
- No - 100%
- Yes - 0%
"President Obama had no choice but to hold Secretary Shinseki accountable for the VA's failures, but these failures run much deeper than Shinseki."
"Fixing the VA requires a dedicated, multiyear effort on the part of the administration and Congress. Just changing out the person at the top is like reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic."
"VA issues go well beyond current leadership. Mega-question is, can the VA ever provide expected medical services to veterans, or is a new approach needed?"
"But it won't hurt."
"The VA may be Obama's [Hurricane] Katrina."
"The VA offers expensive socialized medicine, funded and delivered by government. As with military depots and commissaries, the government should not conduct commercial-like activities that the private sector is more efficient and innovative at performing. VA budgets have exploded, even though the patient population has declined; throwing more money at the VA would be wasteful. The VA system should be privatized."
"The VA is an ironclad mature bureaucracy which should be stripped of deadwood."
"This is a massive systemic problem. The incentives are all wrong, there is no accountability. The veterans are prisoners of a bureaucratic system with no alternatives."
"Unless the VA command structure is given authority to actually manage its workforce, things will stay the same."
"He is an honorable man, but good intentions are not self-executing. Sloan Gibson will need to manage change at all levels and quickly."
"The VA is a heartless bureaucracy run amok. It will require sustained nonpartisan leadership over several years to enforce a real change in the VA's culture."
"Much of the problem with the VA stems from Congress's failure to impose some common sense limitations on Veteran's with the non-service connected medical issues."
"This is just another instance of head-rolling as a common but misplaced response to a problem."
"The VA is a notoriously hidebound bureaucracy. It won't change short of being dismantled--which it should be. It's an anachronism from WWII. Our vets should be folded into the civilian system, albeit with higher subsidies."
"The VA will take years to fix."
"No, the firing of an incompetent department head is a step toward fixing many long-standing problems in the VA Department, but legislative changes will also be needed."
"The VA has serious cultural issues in the workforce despite providing decent medical care. Customner service and integrity are lacking."
"He was the scalp the Dems on the Hill demanded, but Congress is part of the problem. It will take a coordinated, bipartisan effort. But the bigger question is what is required: 'fix' or reform?"
"This was not about the person, Shinseki, but a rotten bureaucracy and myriad other problems. The inclination will be to throw more money at this problem rather than addressing root causes. That will be a nice Band-Aid but will not fix the VA."
"No. The massive problems are deeply systemic and political. There are simply too many VA hospitals and mid- and high-level bureaucrats. On the former, Congress needs to BRAC the hospital and focus resources. I hope they bring in someone of stature to clean up the mess, but I don't know who would take it on."
"Necessary to change the conversation, not sufficient to affect change; bipartisan support to improve is a plus, and the next secretary has a platform to deal with the integrity and values challenges and to improve care."
"His resignation is only the beginning of a long process to modernize the VA. A lot depends on who Obama picks to replace him and whether or not Congress will play a helpful role in giving the VA the authorities it needs to reform."
National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Michael Allen, Thad Allen, Graham Allison, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Janine Davidson, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Todd Harrison, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Marty Hauser, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Linda Hudson, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, Michael Leiter, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Michael Morell, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Gary Samore, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Suzanne Spaulding, James Stavridis, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Ted Stroup, Guy Swan, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Richard Wilhelm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.
This article appears in the June 9, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.