This is now becoming quite a spectacle, and it’s hard not to see Tomasky as prescient when he immediately grasped how the Bergdahl rescue would galvanize so many. There is the legitimate concern that this was a bad deal, of course. But the following factors bear remembering: the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close; since we went to war against the Taliban regime, their POWs require repatriation and release; finding a way to do that while also getting our one POW back to safety is a perfectly legitimate option for a commander-in-chief to weigh in negotiations for ending the war; and the military ethic of doing everything possible to retrieve POWs is extremely deep (reiterated by Dempsey and McChrystal in the last week).
There’s still room for a debate, of course, but that’s not what we are witnessing. We’re witnessing something much more primal – and it reaches deep into the id of the American right. Michelle Malkin, as is her wont, put it all together yesterday:
The Bowe Bergdahl mess isn’t just a story about one deserter, but two.
Those two would be the president and the POW. In other words, this is classic Dolchstoss stuff. And what’s remarkable, in fact, given its emotional traction among the GOP base, is that it hasn’t all but defined this presidency.
Obama, after all, inherited two failed and catastrophic wars of occupation. He was elected in large part to end them. Since the wars had been failures, no “victory” was possible, despite the astonishing human and economic cost. My own fear back in 2007 and 2008 was that any attempted withdrawal from Iraq could lead to a humiliation that the right would then deploy brutally against the traitor Muslim in the White House. I feared we would become stuck in quicksand because the Palinite right could not accept failure and tar Obama as a surrender-monkey. I worried about the same dynamic in Afghanistan. A Vietnam-style departure, handing the country back to the forces of Islamist extremism, would also be catnip for the Palinites. Even though they knew the war could not be “won”, they could pivot to blame Obama for “surrender without honor.”
That the president has somehow managed to extricate the US from those two catastrophes without such a rightist revolt is, to my mind, the real story here. You can put that down to various factors:
the public’s own utter exhaustion with the war; the freshness of the disasters in people’s minds; and the canniness of Obama’s long game in Afghanistan – giving the military much of what it wanted in the “surge”, showing the impossibility of a permanent solution, and slowly, painstakingly, withdrawing over the longest time-table available to him – eight long years. This has been one of Obama’s least noticed achievements, and shrewdest political moves: ending two wars without being blamed for surrender.
What the Bergdahl deal does is give the right a mini-gasm in which to vent all their emotions about the wars they once backed and to channel them into their pre-existing template of the traitor/deserter/Muslim/impostor presidency of Barack Hussein Obama. This venting has been a long time coming, it springs from all the frustrations of losing wars, and it can have pure expression against a soldier with a hippie dad and a president they despise. It’s a bonanza of McCarthyite “stab-in-the-back” paranoia and culture war aggression. They don’t have to vent against Cheney, the true architect of the defeats, because now they have a cause celebre to pursue Obama over.
They also get to avoid the messy awful reality that Cheney bequeathed us: an illegal internment/torture camp with 149 prisoners with no possibility of justice or release. Permanent detention and brutal torture of prisoners are not issues to the right. They invariably refuse to acknowledge the extraordinary cost of Gitmo to the moral standing of the US or its increasingly tenuous claim to be a vanguard of Western values. Instead, they wallow in terror of the inmates – being so scared of them that they cannot even tolerate them on American soil – and impugn the very integrity and patriotism of a twice-elected president when he tries to untie the knot Bush left him.
They have no constructive solution to this problem, of course. They have no constructive solution to anything else either – whether it be climate change, healthcare or immigration. But they know one thing: how to foment and channel free-floating rage at an impostor/deserter president for inheriting the national security disaster they created. This they know how to do. This is increasingly all they know how to do.
And the beat goes on.
(Photo: Butters talks to reporters as he arrives at a closed door briefing on Capitol Hill on June 4, 2014. By Alex Wong/Getty Images.)