I don't have a strong opinion. There, I said it—and I'm prepared to suffer the consequences. Drum me out of the pundit corps, strip me of my column, and bar me from Twitter, but I refuse to rush to judgment on the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
He's the American soldier freed from Taliban captivity in an exchange for five hardened terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Awash in ambiguity, President Obama's decision to barter with the enemy led to the familiar Washington scene: Most Republicans reflexively attacked the president and most Democrats dutifully carried his water.
I'd like to think most Americans are slower to judgment, sifting through emerging and oft-conflicting information for answers to a few key questions.
Did Obama break the law? A provision of the 2014 defense bill imposed three conditions on the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees: The Defense secretary must certify that a transfer is in the national interest; the administration must mitigate the chances that a detainee poses a future threat; and the president must notify Congress of a planned transfer within 30 days. While the White House can argue plausibly that the first two conditions were met, no amount of parsing forgives the fact that Congress was kept in the dark about this specific swap.
The White House notes that Obama attached to the defense bill a so-called signing statement arguing that he has the constitutional power to override the Guantanamo Bay provisions. That is the same argument and tactic President George W. Bush used to justify his anti-terrorism polices. Candidate Obama accused Bush of abuse of power.
FIRST IMPRESSION: Obama was right as a candidate, wrong as a president. He should have notified Congress. As The Washington Post editorial board said, "Claims that Congress could not be trusted to keep the operation secret are no excuse."
Obama on Afghanistan POW Bowe Bergdahl
Was Bergdahl a hero or a deserter? "He served the United States with honor and distinction," National Security Adviser Susan Rice declared Sunday on ABC's This Week. The Pentagon concluded in 2010 that Bergdahl walked away from his unit, according to the Associated Press. After an initial flurry of searching, which reportedly led to the deaths of six U.S. soldiers, the military curbed any high-risk rescue plans. Now that Bergdahl is free, the military will investigate his motives for leaving his unit and whether he was working against U.S. interests.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Rice is not credible. Her quote conflicts with reporting out of the Pentagon and from Bergdahl's former colleagues. On another Sunday news show almost two years ago, Rice came armed with White House talking points and misled the public about the Benghazi attack. In the event that her "honor and distinction" assurances don't hold up, the White House should immediately identify the source of that talking point. While they're at it, somebody in the communications shop might want to explain to Obama why they arranged a Rose Garden appearance with Bergdahl's parents, tying their boss to the son's questionable narrative. It was political malpractice.
Was Bergdahl worth saving? If Rice is correct, the answer is clear. But what if he was a deserter or even a traitor? "Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American solider back if he's held in captivity," Obama said during a news conference in Poland. "We don't condition that."
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: The president is articulating an American virtue and tradition. Of course, any American is worth saving. A better question is …
Was Bergdahl worth the price Obama paid and the precedents set? There are many reasons to say no. First, critics of the deal say the United States doesn't negotiate with terrorists. That is a myth. "We have long negotiated with terrorists. Virtually every other country in the world has negotiated with terrorists despite pledges never to," Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, told USA Today. "We should be tough on terrorists, but not on our fellow countrymen who are their captives, which means having to make a deal with the devil when there is no alternative."
Second, the swap makes it more likely that terrorist groups will capture U.S. personnel. Obama "put a price on the heads" of U.S. soldiers, critics say. This reasoning assumes that, until now, terrorists didn't seek to capture (if not kill) U.S. soldiers with full knowledge of both the public-relations value of human trophies and the West's history of prisoner swaps.
Third, the five terrorists released in exchange for Bergdahl are now free to attack and coordinate attacks against the United States' interests. Obama acknowledged that possibility today and said that if the Afghans take any dangerous steps, the U.S. "will be in a position" to go after them. He didn't say how the U.S. would monitor the terrorists and what he would do to stop them.
FIRST IMPRESSION: Talk about a tough call: If the Afghans act against the United States or its allies, Obama will have blood on his hands. This is where your opinion about Obama probably tracks closely with your opinion on the deal.
If you trust the president—if you buy his assurances about the U.S. capacity to monitor the terrorists and his resolve to take swift action—you're likely to give him the benefit of the doubt on the swap. In your mind's eye, you see a drone emblazoned with the names of five nasty Afghans.
If you don't trust much of what Obama says or does, you're likely to hate this deal because it depends so heavily on the president's judgment.
If you're ambivalent about Obama, the Bergdahl deal probably leaves you—perhaps uncomfortably alone among your family and friends—without a strong opinion.