Tomasky today predicts that the Bergdahl prisoner swap may well become the next Benghazi on the fetid horizons of the Palinite right. I hope he’s wrong, but I’ve learned not to under-estimate the extremism of the Dolchstoss brigade. The Benghazi and Bergdahl “scandals”, after all, are both rooted in the assumption that the president is in some way anti-American, that his loyalty is somehow not to the United States, but to some other abstract but foreign authority, and so he would obviously be happy to leave Americans to perish in an undefended consulate and lie about it afterwards to cover his negligence up … or be content to deal with the Taliban on behalf of another “anti-American”.
Beneath the intricacies and easy emotional manipulation, this McCarthy era paranoia is what drives both obsessions. The contradictions are, of course, bleeding obvious. Obama is to be excoriated for abandoning Americans in the line of fire in Benghazi and then excoriated for rescuing a servicemember in enemy captivity in the matter of Bowe Bergdahl. You’ll see that, not for the first time, the president cannot win. You’ll also note that one of the American right’s heroes, Bibi Netanyahu, released more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, some of whom had actually murdered Israeli civilians, in order to retrieve Gilad Shalit. Somehow Netanyahu is not regarded as a terrorist-sympathizer by the Tea Party.
And it is an outright calumny, of course, to impugn this president’s patriotism, the kind instinctually propagated by Palin and her spittle-flecked confreres. Barack Obama is, au contraire, a uniquely and proudly American story. He has been relentless in pursuing the enemy in Afghanistan and Pakistan in his period in office. He killed bin Laden and Anwar al -Awlaki. His emergence as a biracial president would give any sane American a reason to be proud, not squeamish. And what he did, in the case of Bergdahl, requires no further explanation than that a commander-in-chief’s task is to leave no servicemember behind enemy lines, especially as a war comes to a close. (There’s also a strong argument to be made that, as the war in Afghanistan comes to a close, the Taliban commanders at Gitmo had a right under international law to be exchanged.)
I’m not saying, of course, that robust pushback against this tough call is not legitimate. That’s embedded in the very notion of a tough call. There are powerful questions that need addressing:
Was the deal a good one? How effective will the monitoring of the Taliban commanders be? Did the president comply with the letter of the law? But I’d argue vehemently that Bergdahl’s personal politics and Obama’s core motivations aren’t among them. Whether Bergdahl was a deserter or not, whether he was “anti-American” or not, whether he may have cooperated with his captors under duress or not: these questions should be dealt with by the regular process of military justice and investigation. But none of that can truly happen without Bergdahl himself to question and interrogate. And if we are going to rescue a service-member depending on our assessment of his politics or character, we have undermined a key principle of military justice and discipline. You wear the uniform, you get rescued if captured. Period. No other questions need to be asked or answered until after you’re safe and in US custody.
One final thing about the 30-day notification of Congress requirement. The one exception to the executive’s deference to the legislative in statutory matters such as this are contingent, time-constrained executive actions that require immediate implementation. A quick military response, a drone strike, a raid, or a rescue: these fall into the most solid executive area of legitimate, unilateral executive action. For the Republicans who only recently defended a far greater degree of executive power to cavil at this almost text-book case of executive expedition is a triple lutz in hypocrisy and inconsistency. But this, alas, is not news. They will use any weapon at hand, even if they have to trash some of the most important military principles to indict him.
(Photo: Jani Bergdahl, the mother of freed US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, walks through the Colonnade with US President Barack Obama to speak in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 31, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke after the release of Bergdahl by the Taliban in Afghanistan. By Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty.)