Insiders Support Bergdahl Swap — but Just Barely

Not one expert said Eric Shinseki’s resignation would fix the massive problems in the VA health care system.

National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
June 9, 2014, 5:31 p.m.

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?
(66 votes)

  • 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?
(66 votes)

  • 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.

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