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?

President Barack Obama walks with the parents of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Jani Bergdahl (L) and Bob Bergdahl (R) back to the Oval Office after making a statement regarding the release of Sgt. Bergdahl from captivity.
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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 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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