What Your Opinion on the Bergdahl Swap Says About Your Views Toward Obama

We know next to nothing about Bergdahl or the president’s plan to monitor the terrorists he freed. So unless you’re partisan, it’s too soon to form an opinion.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
June 3, 2014, 5:39 a.m.

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.”

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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.

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