Here’s What Happens When You Play Politics with the Bergdahl Swap

What if the White House had chosen a low-key announcement of the Bowe Bergdahl swap?

National Journal
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Ron Fournier
June 4, 2014, 6:18 a.m.

The best meas­ure of wheth­er Pres­id­ent Obama cut a smart deal to free Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl is what hap­pens to the five Guantanamo Bay ter­ror­ists he traded away. Do they go (a) in­to re­tire­ment; (b) in­to battle against the United States; (c) or in­to five cold graves?

The rest of what you’re hear­ing about the swap is polit­ics ““ thinly dis­guised as a leg­al and for­eign policy de­bate. Un­less you can pre­dict the fu­ture, the smart move on such a com­plex story is to avoid an ab­so­lut­ist po­s­i­tion.

Here’s what hap­pen when you don’t:

The White House has un­der­mined its cred­ib­il­ity ““ again ““by con­fus­ing gov­ern­ing with cam­paign­ing. It was no secret that the Taliban’s cap­ture of Ber­g­dahl was com­plic­ated by evid­ence that he aban­doned his unit. Many people in gov­ern­ment long con­sidered the sol­dier a desert­er or trait­or. Still, the United States had a mor­al ob­lig­a­tion to seek Bergh­dal’s free­dom and a na­tion­al se­cur­ity im­per­at­ive to get him in­to the mil­it­ary justice sys­tem, where any com­pli­city with the Taliban would be ex­posed, mit­ig­ated and pun­ished. Little about the case was un­am­bigu­ous.

All too typ­ic­ally, White House of­fi­cials dis­missed the grays and painted a black-and-white pic­ture, one with a front-and-cen­ter pose for their hero-pres­id­ent.

  • Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice de­clared on ABC’s “This Week” that Ber­g­dahl served with “hon­or and dis­tinc­tion,” an eye­brow-raiser that evoked memor­ies of her Benghazi talk­ing points fiasco.
  • Ber­g­dahl’s par­ents were summoned to a Rose Garden ce­re­mony that only a laugh­ably in­com­pet­ent com­mu­nic­a­tions team wouldn’t re­cog­nize as a pub­lic re­la­tions risk.
  • The White House failed to no­ti­fy Con­gress in ad­vance of the swap, as re­quired by law. Pres­id­en­tial aides called it an “over­sight.” Over­look­ing something as ba­sic as a con­gres­sion­al head’s up? It’s hard to be­lieve that seni­or pres­id­en­tial ad­visers could be that in­com­pet­ent, but the only oth­er al­tern­at­ive is that they’re ly­ing.

What if the White House had chosen a low-key an­nounce­ment of the swap, pledging in a writ­ten state­ment to get to the bot­tom of Ber­g­dahl’s con­duct while keep­ing gun sights on the free ter­ror­ists? No spin. No cel­eb­ra­tions. No am­muni­tion for the GOP. My guess: This would be a 48-hour story, not a mush­room­ing polit­ic­al fight.

The best meas­ure of wheth­er Pres­id­ent Obama cut a smart deal to free Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl is what hap­pens to the five Guantanamo Bay ter­ror­ists he traded away. Do they go (a) in­to re­tire­ment; (b) in­to battle against the United States; (c) or in­to five cold graves?

The rest of what you’re hear­ing about the swap is polit­ics ““ thinly dis­guised as a leg­al and for­eign policy de­bate. Un­less you can pre­dict the fu­ture, the smart move on such a com­plex story is to avoid an ab­so­lut­ist po­s­i­tion.

Here’s what hap­pen when you don’t:

The White House has un­der­mined its cred­ib­il­ity ““ again ““by con­fus­ing gov­ern­ing with cam­paign­ing. It was no secret that the Taliban’s cap­ture of Ber­g­dahl was com­plic­ated by evid­ence that he aban­doned his unit. Many people in gov­ern­ment long con­sidered the sol­dier a desert­er or trait­or. Still, the United States had a mor­al ob­lig­a­tion to seek Bergh­dal’s free­dom and a na­tion­al se­cur­ity im­per­at­ive to get him in­to the mil­it­ary justice sys­tem, where any com­pli­city with the Taliban would be ex­posed, mit­ig­ated and pun­ished. Little about the case was un­am­bigu­ous.

All too typ­ic­ally, White House of­fi­cials dis­missed the grays and painted a black-and-white pic­ture, one with a front-and-cen­ter pose for their hero-pres­id­ent.

  • Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice de­clared on ABC’s “This Week” that Ber­g­dahl served with “hon­or and dis­tinc­tion,” an eye­brow-raiser that evoked memor­ies of her Benghazi talk­ing points fiasco.
  • Ber­g­dahl’s par­ents were summoned to a Rose Garden ce­re­mony that only a laugh­ably in­com­pet­ent com­mu­nic­a­tions team wouldn’t re­cog­nize as a pub­lic re­la­tions risk.
  • The White House failed to no­ti­fy Con­gress in ad­vance of the swap, as re­quired by law. Pres­id­en­tial aides called it an “over­sight.” Over­look­ing something as ba­sic as a con­gres­sion­al head’s up? It’s hard to be­lieve that seni­or pres­id­en­tial ad­visers could be that in­com­pet­ent, but the only oth­er al­tern­at­ive is that they’re ly­ing.

What if the White House had chosen a low-key an­nounce­ment of the swap, pledging in a writ­ten state­ment to get to the bot­tom of Ber­g­dahl’s con­duct while keep­ing gun sights on the free ter­ror­ists? No spin. No cel­eb­ra­tions. No am­muni­tion for the GOP. My guess: This would be a 48-hour story, not a mush­room­ing polit­ic­al fight.

The Re­pub­lic­an Party looks hy­po­crit­ic­al, and risks over­reach­ing ““ again. Many Re­pub­lic­ans have been pres­sur­ing the White House to se­cure Ber­g­dahl’s re­lease, know­ing the most likely route would be via a pris­on­er swap. Sen. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona, the failed 2008 GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, told CNN in Feb­ru­ary that he “would be in­clined to sup­port” an ex­change of pris­on­ers with the Taliban un­der the right cir­cum­stances. He is now con­demning the Ber­g­dahl deal, call­ing these the wrong cir­cum­stances.

Then there are the GOP news-whisper­ers. Buzzfeed re­por­ted Tues­day that a former ad­viser to Pres­id­ent George W. Bush and Mitt Rom­ney played a key role in pub­li­ciz­ing Ber­g­dahl’s crit­ics in the mil­it­ary.

The in­volve­ment of Richard Grenell, who once served as a key aide to Bush-era U.S. Am­bas­sad­or to the U.N. John Bolton and later worked for Rom­ney’s 2012 cam­paign, comes as the Ber­g­dahl re­lease has turned in­to an in­creas­ingly vi­cious par­tis­an is­sue.

The New York Times re­por­ted that “Re­pub­lic­an strategists” had ar­ranged an in­ter­view for them with men who served in Afgh­anistan with Ber­g­dahl, who was re­leased after five years of im­pris­on­ment by the Taliban in a con­tro­ver­sial pris­on­er swap deal. In the art­icle, the men ex­press their an­ger at Ber­g­dahl for leav­ing the base, caus­ing oth­er sol­diers to risk their lives look­ing for him.

The same sol­diers also did in­ter­views with The Weekly Stand­ard, the Daily Mail, the Wall Street Journ­al, and Fox News.

Cody Full, one of the sol­diers quoted in the New York Times and oth­er stor­ies, tweeted yes­ter­day about Grenell: “I want to thank @richard­grenell for help­ing get our pla­toon’s story out.” Grenell retweeted the tweet, call­ing Full a “true Amer­ic­an hero.”

Are there any straight shoot­ers in Wash­ing­ton? In the 24 hours since I warned against politi­ciz­ing this situ­ation (“What Your Opin­ion About the Ber­g­dahl Swap Says About Your Views To­ward Obama”), both parties re­ver­ted to course. Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats are stuck in per­petu­al cam­paign mode, treat­ing big na­tion­al prob­lems like elec­tion cam­paigns, where res­ults are by nature a zero-sum game: total vic­tory or total de­feat. Gov­ern­ing, when done right, is not so clean.

The best meas­ure of wheth­er Pres­id­ent Obama cut a smart deal to free Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl is what hap­pens to the five Guantanamo Bay ter­ror­ists he traded away. Do they go (a) in­to re­tire­ment; (b) in­to battle against the United States; (c) or in­to five cold graves?

The rest of what you’re hear­ing about the swap is polit­ics ““ thinly dis­guised as a leg­al and for­eign policy de­bate. Un­less you can pre­dict the fu­ture, the smart move on such a com­plex story is to avoid an ab­so­lut­ist po­s­i­tion.

Here’s what hap­pen when you don’t:

The White House has un­der­mined its cred­ib­il­ity ““ again ““by con­fus­ing gov­ern­ing with cam­paign­ing. It was no secret that the Taliban’s cap­ture of Ber­g­dahl was com­plic­ated by evid­ence that he aban­doned his unit. Many people in gov­ern­ment long con­sidered the sol­dier a desert­er or trait­or. Still, the United States had a mor­al ob­lig­a­tion to seek Bergh­dal’s free­dom and a na­tion­al se­cur­ity im­per­at­ive to get him in­to the mil­it­ary justice sys­tem, where any com­pli­city with the Taliban would be ex­posed, mit­ig­ated and pun­ished. Little about the case was un­am­bigu­ous.

All too typ­ic­ally, White House of­fi­cials dis­missed the grays and painted a black-and-white pic­ture, one with a front-and-cen­ter pose for their hero-pres­id­ent.

  • Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice de­clared on ABC’s “This Week” that Ber­g­dahl served with “hon­or and dis­tinc­tion,” an eye­brow-raiser that evoked memor­ies of her Benghazi talk­ing points fiasco.
  • Ber­g­dahl’s par­ents were summoned to a Rose Garden ce­re­mony that only a laugh­ably in­com­pet­ent com­mu­nic­a­tions team wouldn’t re­cog­nize as a pub­lic re­la­tions risk.
  • The White House failed to no­ti­fy Con­gress in ad­vance of the swap, as re­quired by law. Pres­id­en­tial aides called it an “over­sight.” Over­look­ing something as ba­sic as a con­gres­sion­al head’s up? It’s hard to be­lieve that seni­or pres­id­en­tial ad­visers could be that in­com­pet­ent, but the only oth­er al­tern­at­ive is that they’re ly­ing.

What if the White House had chosen a low-key an­nounce­ment of the swap, pledging in a writ­ten state­ment to get to the bot­tom of Ber­g­dahl’s con­duct while keep­ing gun sights on the free ter­ror­ists? No spin. No cel­eb­ra­tions. No am­muni­tion for the GOP. My guess: This would be a 48-hour story, not a mush­room­ing polit­ic­al fight.

The Re­pub­lic­an Party looks hy­po­crit­ic­al, and risks over­reach­ing ““ again. Many Re­pub­lic­ans have been pres­sur­ing the White House to se­cure Ber­g­dahl’s re­lease, know­ing the most likely route would be via a pris­on­er swap. Sen. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona, the failed 2008 GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, told CNN in Feb­ru­ary that he “would be in­clined to sup­port” an ex­change of pris­on­ers with the Taliban un­der the right cir­cum­stances. He is now con­demning the Ber­g­dahl deal, call­ing these the wrong cir­cum­stances.

Then there are the GOP news-whisper­ers. Buzzfeed re­por­ted Tues­day that a former ad­viser to Pres­id­ent George W. Bush and Mitt Rom­ney played a key role in pub­li­ciz­ing Ber­g­dahl’s crit­ics in the mil­it­ary.

The in­volve­ment of Richard Grenell, who once served as a key aide to Bush-era U.S. Am­bas­sad­or to the U.N. John Bolton and later worked for Rom­ney’s 2012 cam­paign, comes as the Ber­g­dahl re­lease has turned in­to an in­creas­ingly vi­cious par­tis­an is­sue.

The New York Times re­por­ted that “Re­pub­lic­an strategists” had ar­ranged an in­ter­view for them with men who served in Afgh­anistan with Ber­g­dahl, who was re­leased after five years of im­pris­on­ment by the Taliban in a con­tro­ver­sial pris­on­er swap deal. In the art­icle, the men ex­press their an­ger at Ber­g­dahl for leav­ing the base, caus­ing oth­er sol­diers to risk their lives look­ing for him.

The same sol­diers also did in­ter­views with The Weekly Stand­ard, the Daily Mail, the Wall Street Journ­al, and Fox News.

Cody Full, one of the sol­diers quoted in the New York Times and oth­er stor­ies, tweeted yes­ter­day about Grenell: “I want to thank @richard­grenell for help­ing get our pla­toon’s story out.” Grenell retweeted the tweet, call­ing Full a “true Amer­ic­an hero.”

Are there any straight shoot­ers in Wash­ing­ton? In the 24 hours since I warned against politi­ciz­ing this situ­ation (“What Your Opin­ion About the Ber­g­dahl Swap Says About Your Views To­ward Obama”), both parties re­ver­ted to course. Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats are stuck in per­petu­al cam­paign mode, treat­ing big na­tion­al prob­lems like elec­tion cam­paigns, where res­ults are by nature a zero-sum game: total vic­tory or total de­feat. Gov­ern­ing, when done right, is not so clean.

RE­LATED: “What Your Opin­ion About the Ber­g­dahl Swap Says About Your Views To­ward Obama”

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