The Best Of The Dish Today

Now that the drive-by media, to borrow a term from Rush Limbaugh, has moved on, new documents that reveal the inner life of Bowe Bergdahl paint an utterly different picture of him than the traitor/deserter/Islamist/anti-American profile broadcast by Fox News. Instead, you find a deeply troubled and mentally unstable character, clearly prone to deep depression, and struggling to find a way to live in the world. We learn that he was discharged from the Coast Guard for psychological reasons, for example. And then there are simply painful passages of juvenile prose that reveal just a lost soul:

“I’m worried,” he wrote in one journal entry before he deployed. “The closer I get to ship day, the calmer the voices are. I’m reverting. I’m getting colder. My feelings are being flushed with the frozen logic and the training, all the unfeeling cold judgment of the darkness.” A few pages later, he wrote: “I will not lose this mind, this world I have deep inside. I will not lose this passion of beauty.”

At another point, using his often un­or­tho­dox spelling, he wrote: “Trying to keep my self togeather. I’m so tired of the blackness, but what will happen to me without it. Bloody hell why do I keep thinking of this over and over.”

As for his intellectual influences, he has this in common with Dave Brat and every other adolescent who cannot quite find a way to live in a complicated, social world: Ayn Rand. The one novel in his possession when he walked off the base was Atlas Shrugged. And scene.

Today, we grappled with the fallout from the Cantor earthquake – and I attempted to gauge the power of right-wing populism in this volatile political environment. We also tackled the inevitable disintegration of Iraq, as the sectarian forces unleashed and only barely contained by the US invasion gradually resurfaced, aided and abetted by Maliki’s Shiite sectarianism. Plus: George Will’s blind spot; the Clintons’ fabulous Hamptons mansion; and the near-miraculous slowdown in Medicare costs – perhaps the most important factor for our future fiscal health, and what may well be another part of Obama’s broadening legacy.

The most popular post of the day was The Cantor Shocker: Blog Reax, our trademarked round-up of online commentary; followed by Engaging the T, Ctd., where I defend Dan Savage from the language police.

Many of today’s posts were updated with your emails – read them all here.  You can always leave your unfiltered comments at our Facebook page and @sullydish. 30 more readers became subscribers today. You can join them here for a little as $1.99 month.

See you in the morning.

The Long And Winding Road To Closing Gitmo

Max Fisher tackles the notion that Obama can or should use the executive powers he flexed in the Bergdahl deal as an end-run around Congress to shutter Gitmo. The debate, which the Dish has covered here and here, hinges on how we categorize the facility’s 149 remaining detainees:

If the US categorizes them strictly as combatants in a war, then while that gives the US authority to hold them for the duration of war, the United States’ war in Afghanistan is legally ending in 2014, which means Obama would legally have to release most or all detainees at that time. It would also mean that he’d need to try them in a military tribunal to have detained them in the first place, which in many cases he did not do for lack of admissible evidence. But if the US categorizes the detainees as terrorists, while that gives the US legal license to hold them far beyond 2014, the US would need to convict them in a civilian courtroom first.

So why can’t the president exploit that ambiguity to release the rest of the detainees, like he did with the five we traded for Bergdahl? One reason is the question of where they would go:

The US cannot legally take these detainees, most of whom are not Afghan nationals, and simply drop them off by the side of a random road in Kabul, like a family pet that bit the baby. So the Obama administration has to try to find a third country that will accept them. This is why, for example, it wrangled Bermuda into accepting a handful of Chinese detainees whom China had refused to take back.

Were Obama to declare all of the Gitmo detainees to be legal enemy combatants, he would make these problems harder to solve, not easier.

It’s one thing for the US State Department to call up the Bermudan foreign ministry and ask them to accept some Chinese detainees whom the US insists are harmless; it’s quite another to ask Bermuda to accept people whom we legally designate as active fighters in an ongoing war. Even if Obama decided it were worth the risk to jump dump the entire population of Guantanamo into the Taliban’s hands, it’s not at all clear that even the Taliban would accept the detainees, not all of whom fought with the group.

Drum’s takeaway from Fisher’s analysis is that “Obama is not going to close Guantanamo,” ever:

The legal loophole he used in the Bergdahl prisoner exchange—no matter what you think of it—flatly wouldn’t apply to shutting down the entire prison. Plus there’s the fact that Congress would go ballistic if he tried—including plenty of Democrats. Impeachment would go from a fever dream of the tea-party right to a very realistic bipartisan possibility.

Finally, there’s frankly never been much evidence that Obama cares all that much. He’d obviously like to shut down Guantanamo, but he just doesn’t feel that strongly about it.

So give it up. Guantanamo will be here through the end of Obama’s presidency, and quite possibly until its last prisoner dies. It’s fanciful to think anything else.

But Matt Welch insists that Obama can and should do his darnedest to shut it down:

When it comes to terrorism, apples-to-apples rates of recidivism may not be possible—all it takes is one murderous nutbag to kill scores of people, the “worst of the worst” are probably going to be worse than the first ones released, and it’s important to be clear-eyed about the risk here. But one risk that rarely gets mentioned by War on Terror hawks is the (to my mind) equal certainty that other people around the world will be inspired by the existence of America’s Kafkaesque prison to commit murder against Americans. Put another way, we will be able to “see” acts of terrorism committed by those who are sprung from Gitmo, but the “unseen” acts of terror that are partly motivated by the U.S. conducting itself as a superpower above the law are no less real.

It’s a messed-up paradox, and one of Republicans‘ making. Maybe next time we’ll think a bit more through the problem of snatching and torturing people and then realizing that such treatment makes them damnably hard to stand even military tribunals.

Frank Goldsmith – a lawyer who has represented five detainees, including one of the Taliban members traded for Bergdahl – stresses how few of these “terrorists” have ever been successfully charged with crimes:

In the cases of the Guantánamo detainees, we lawyers cannot discuss the specific facts publicly, because we were required to trade our free speech for access to the classified evidence necessary to represent our clients. But it is telling that after over a dozen years of detention, the government has managed to charge, try, and convict only a handful – fewer than ten – of the 779 men it brought to the base.

Five were convicted of minor charges (some that were not even crimes at the time of their detention) and have been released. One of the convictions was overturned on appeal; other appeals remain pending. This is not a record of ringing prosecutorial success. Of the five men I represented, including the Taliban political official just sent to Qatar, none was ever charged with even the most minor crime; they were simply held for years without charges until it pleased the government to send them back. Where is the evidence that they are terrorists?

About half of the 149 men still left at Guantánamo have long been determined not to be a threat and have been approved for transfer; the only impediments to their release are political.

Here’s my fear: that 2009 represented the high watermark for closing this obscenity down. A newly-elected president had a clear mandate to do it and yet the Congress simply vetoed it, with strong public support. Blaming Obama for that seems absurd to me. The sad truth is that Americans are perfectly fine with detaining innocent people indefinitely, if they have beards and funny names, and have no interest in sustaining democratic norms if it means one life lost to terrorism. The whole edifice of Western justice went out the window with one terror attack and because one major political party, the GOP, is only too willing to use this fear for political dividends, it will not be put back together again. We will, in fact, be lucky if a future Republican president doesn’t restore torture as a legal form of statecraft.

Does this lead me to despair? Well, not far off. We have learned a lot about this country these past few years. Gitmo – a torture and detention camp outside any norms of Western justice – is now a symbol of America across the world. It is our 21st Century city on a hill. It is, in many ways, an emblem of the death of America as an ideal. And one political party made that happen.

The Known Unknowns About Bowe Bergdahl, Ctd

Was he actually a bit of a gung-ho warrior? As I noted last night, further reporting keeps complicating the Palinite meme:

To many of those soldiers, Sergeant Bergdahl was viewed as standoffish or eccentric, smoking a pipe instead of spitting tobacco, as so many soldiers do, and reading voraciously when others napped or watched videos. But he was not isolated from his platoon Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 10.18.38 AMmates, some said. And while he was, like other soldiers in the platoon, often disappointed or confused by their mission in Paktika, some of his peers also said that Sergeant Bergdahl seemed enthusiastic about fighting, particularly after the platoon was ambushed several weeks before his disappearance.

“He’d complain about not being able to go on the offensive, and being attacked and not being able to return fire,” said Gerald Sutton, who knew Sergeant Bergdahl from spending time together on their tiny outpost, Observation Post Mest Malak, near the village of Yahya Khel, about 50 miles west of the Pakistani border. Mr. Sutton said he had struggled to square the popular portrayal of Sergeant Bergdahl as brooding and disenchanted with the soldier he knew. “He wanted to take the fight to the enemy and do the mission of the infantry,” he said, adding, “He was a good soldier, and whenever he was told to do something, he would do it.”

But Carpenter expects the right to stick to its story without regard for the evidence:

The Times adds that “Just how and why Sergeant Bergdahl disappeared remains a mystery to his fellow soldiers.” But it’s no mystery to the right. They have their story and they’ll stick to it–no matter how thumpingly it unravels–because not only does it mesh with their history of Obamian horrors, it must mesh.

Meanwhile, Tomasky knocks down the meaningless notion that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”:

Every president since has said we don’t negotiate with terrorists. And every president has. And I would say prudently and reasonably so. When terrorists can give you information, for a certain price or because you have a shared enemy, take it. George W. Bush paid a ransom of $300,000  to a radical Islamist group in the Philippines that was holding two American missionaries, a married couple, captive. To get them to safety? I say, fine. Alas, however, the man was killed, even after we paid the money. So an American president ended up financing terrorist operations and overseeing a failed military mission. Imagine what Lindsey Graham would be saying today if Barack Obama had done that over the weekend.

It’s a mindless, right-wing electoral politics that make our politicians say “I won’t negotiate with terrorists.” It’s just like “I won’t let the Willie Hortons out of prison,” or, from an earlier time, “We won’t let the ChiComs take over Korea.”

David Rohde, who was kidnapped by the Taliban around the same time as Bergdahl and subsequently escaped, weighs in on our misguided approach to the issue:

Both sides in the furor over the Bergdahl case offer simplistic answers to the growing problem of abductions. Those who say the release of the five prisoners sets no precedent are downplaying the scope of this propaganda coup for the Taliban. Other militants around the globe will likely emulate them. At the same time, the argument that refusing to pay ransom or release prisoners will end all kidnappings is wishful thinking. Given the delusions of my captors, jihadists will remain convinced for years, if not decades, that secret ransoms are being paid.

The real solution would require a massive and difficult long-term effort to reduce the world’s pockets of ungoverned spaces. The Taliban who held Bergdahl and me felt no pressure to reduce their demands because they had a safe haven in the mountains of Pakistan.

And Dexter Filkins wonders about the extent of Pakistan’s involvement in the Bergdahl case:

So far, Pakistani officials have been silent about any role they played in either Bergdahl’s captivity or his release. But there are many questions that need to be answered. The Haqqani network, the group that was holding Bergdahl, maintains especially close ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, or I.S.I. (The Taliban official who told me about Bergdahl was a leader of the Haqqani group.) That a Taliban-aligned guerrilla unit would be so closely tied to the government of our ostensible ally—to which we give more than a billion dollars each year—has long raised troubling questions about American policy in the region. …

Given the close connections that the I.S.I. maintains with the network, it seems inconceivable that the organization wasn’t well aware of Bergdahl’s condition, status, and whereabouts. Did the I.S.I. try, over the years, to free him? We don’t know. Could Pakistani intelligence officials have done more to help him? Did they do nothing? Likewise, we don’t know. Were they involved, and perhaps even instrumental in, gaining his final release? We don’t know. But, given the amount of American money that flows into Pakistan, we’re entitled to ask.

Recent Dish on the evolving Bergdahl story here. My take on the right’s hysterical reaction here, here, here, and here.

(Photo: a reaction to the military’s difficulties in interviewing someone immediately after five years of sometimes brutal captivity and stress.)

The Best Of The Dish This Weekend


Some small part of me wants to see the instant-demonizers of Bowe Bergdahl proven horribly wrong. The likelihood, of course, is that the story of the still-mysterious soldier will produce only more ambiguities. But these little nuggets complicate the culture war paradigm in which a POW has been framed:

“He’s said that they kept him in a shark cage in total darkness for weeks, possibly months,” said one American official. CNN reported Friday that Sergeant Bergdahl said he was held in a metal box or cage, but the officials on Saturday offered new details. He was kept there apparently as punishment for one or possibly two attempted escapes, as first reported by the Daily Beast website last week and confirmed by an American official.

That kind of total sensory deprivation, and isolation is a form of torture … practiced by the Taliban and the US, a merging of values only made possible by the dark soul of Dick Cheney. Then there’s Bergdahl’s own resistance to the promotion awarded him in captivity – and used by the Palinites to attack one of those they usually defer to as generic heroes:

“He says, ‘Don’t call me that,’ ” said one American official. “ ‘I didn’t go before the boards. I didn’t earn it.’ ”

A tortured POW who tried several escapes who rejected any honors … well that isn’t quite the treasonous hippie the hard right wants to attack. And yes, attack:

Late Saturday, the F.B.I. said the Bergdahl family in Idaho had received threats. Federal agents, working with state and local law enforcement authorities, were “taking each threat seriously,” an F.B.I. statement said. Officials declined to give other details.

This weekend, we featured the poetry of Patrizia Cavalli – check out this terse account of loving someone you cannot really love. It’s a pretty good description of the relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, thirty years his junior, but still somehow his full equal.

We grappled with the chimera of “happiness” – with a lovely, and very grown-up video from Adam Phillips and a haunting revisit of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s confusion on the subject.

We asked the following questions: should God be a stop-gap for when our understanding of the world fails? (No, according to Bonhoeffer.) Is it possible to feel empathy for non-practicing pedophiles? (It should be.) Are conservative churches finally going the way of liberal ones … and for the same, secularizing reasons? (Of course they are.) What do Augustine and O.J. Simpson have in common? (Confession.)

Plus: Tolstoy on life and faith; and the sacredness of salmon-fishing.

The most popular posts of the weekend were The Palinite Tendency and Bowe Bergdahl, followed by Compassion for Pedophiles.

It was a gorgeous June weekend on the Cape, where I am now ensconced for my annual – and 21st! – full summer in Provincetown. When I first get here each year, it’s always the same … just fighting every day to stay awake. Something about the place taps something deep inside and says: you’re home now; you can let your guard down; and rest. But not until Bowie has explored every cranny of the beach.

See you (and her) in the morning.

Americans Hate Deserters


A YouGov poll finds the public split on whether trading five Taliban for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was a good idea. The opposition stems entirely from Bergdahl’s alleged desertion:

If the allegations about how Bergdahl was captured turn out to be true, support for the deal could fall even further, particularly among Republicans. Only 24% of Americans think that the government even has a responsibility to try and rescue a deserter who is captured by enemy combatants. This compares to 82% for soldiers that get lost and captured, 87% for soldiers who are wounded and captured. Even for soldiers that surrender to the enemy, most Americans (57%) think that the government has a responsibility to rescue them.

But how can you know if someone deserted if you cannot even question him? That question wasn’t asked. Meanwhile, Jonathan Bernstein doubts the controversy will affect the midterm elections:

My guess is that the flap here already had its desired effect. Getting a captured soldier home was a potential rally-around-the-flag moment that might have lifted the president’s approval rating. However, political scientist Richard Brody found long ago that the rally effect depends on one variable: whether the out-party praises or criticizes the president. So the immediate Republican attacks surely had the effect of preventing an approval boost. Not that it matters much anyway; the whole idea of the rally effect is that it’s a temporary boost. So that didn’t and won’t happen. After a few weeks, approval will be back to where it would have been anyway.

I remain of the view that the administration’s attempt to milk this for approval ratings is the one abiding, dumb-as-a-post misjudgment of the whole thing.

The Known Unknowns About Bowe Bergdahl

Scrutinizing Bergdahl’s last e-mail to his parents before he allegedly fled his unit, John Cassidy doesn’t see the right’s preferred story about Bergdahl holding up:

Does this e-mail prove that Bergdahl was a deserter or even, as some right-wing commentators are suggesting, a traitor who aided Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 1.10.34 PMand abetted the Taliban? No, it doesn’t. If anything, he sounds more like Captain Yossarian, the antic antihero of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22”—who considers his superiors to be nuts and eventually goes AWOL—than Sergeant Brody, the double-dealing protagonist of “Homeland.” In his early twenties, engaged in a war on the other side of the world that many people, including his Commander-in-Chief, would ultimately decide was counterproductive, Bergdahl, seemingly, had had enough.

And that, for now, is about all we know. “As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts,” General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty.”

Also complicating the narrative is a military report from 2009 suggesting that Bergdahl was known to wander off:

It happened both in Afghanistan and while he was training in California. The report concludes that Bergdahl was likely wandering around off-base the night he disappeared in June 2009, says the Timeswhich spoke to people briefed on the 35-page document.

As for whether the disappearance was due to carelessness resulting in capture or willful desertion, the report doesn’t say. It does, however, lend credence to the former theory, criticizing lax security and poor discipline among Bergdahl’s unit that would allow his tendencies to wander to go unchecked. Perhaps most significantly, the report makes no mention of the letter Bergdahl reportedly left in his tent announcing his desertion. Nor does it corroborate claims from Bergdahl’s former squadmates that he was making radio calls trying to get in touch with the Taliban.

Tuccille sympathizes with Bergdahl, arguing that it should have been easier for him to leave the Army when he became disillusioned with the mission in Afghanistan:

American troops have engaged in continuous war in Afghanistan since 2001, so nobody can claim that they don’t know that military service might require actual military service. Then again, military recruiters focus on the young not just because they’re physically fit, but also because they have little perspective on what they’re getting themselves into. More than a few studies have found that recruiters tend to be a bit shaky on the details and potential consequences of enlisting—a choice that, at least potentially, locks enlistees into a situation with high stakes.

Even in the age of the Internet and non-stop news cycles, concepts like combat, injury, and death can be abstract concepts for an 18-year-old. So if Bowe Bergdahl decided that the bill of goods he was sold didn’t live up to the advertising—especially if he began to have moral qualms about his duties—I’m pretty sympathetic.

Sanity Breaks Out On The Right On Bergdahl

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 1.10.34 PM

Put Krauthammer‘s and Brooks’ columns together today and you have – finally – a sane conservative response to the unsavory necessity of the Bergdahl deal. There are several core arguments. First, the importance of leaving no soldier behind as a critical rampart of national solidarity and military tradition. Second, the tough, rough and cold-hearted calculus of exchanging POWs as something that commanders in chief have to do from time to time. Third, the use of executive power here, as I have argued, as about as defensible a use of it as any. Krauthammer is very good on this:

Of all the jurisdictional disputes between president and Congress, the president stands on the firmest ground as commander in chief. And commanders have the power to negotiate prisoner exchanges.

Then on the question of Bergdahl’s conduct itself, the obvious response is to get the man home, investigate fairly and exhaustively, and subject him, if necessary, to military justice. I suppose Krauthammer feels the need to placate the spittle-flecked with this line:

If he’s a defector — joined the enemy to fight against his country — then he deserves no freeing. Indeed, he deserves killing, the way we kill other enemies in the field, the way we killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American who had openly joined al-Qaeda.

But the sequence of events is right. There’s no way to investigate a possible deserter or defector until you have him stateside. The right cannot have it both ways: either he should be disciplined as a traitor or he should be left behind to the Taliban’s clutches. You have to choose – which, of course, the GOP never does.

So what are we left with, after all this sturm and drang? I’d say one genuine criticism – that the announcement of the POW exchange was far too celebratory, and that the tone was seriously off.

And it’s hard not to agree with that. It may have been an accident of circumstance – the family readily available. Or a function of genuine sentiment of a commander-in-chief for the parents of a soldier lost for five years. But it was dumb and smacked of some notion of political gain for a necessary act of war.

What is Obama’s long-term strategy on this? That’s the shoe that hasn’t dropped. But he’s set a precedent: the departure from Gitmo of five prisoners not cleared for release. Once that bar has been set and the ugly reality of having to end this failed war becomes more widely felt, the possibility of releasing innocent prisoners or those deemed low-level functionaries (at best) becomes, perhaps, a little more feasible. Slowly but surely, the president is fulfilling his election promises: economic recovery (with the workforce now back to its pre-recession level), the end of both wars, universal healthcare, action on climate change, and a civil rights revolution for gays. Is it too much to dream that, eight years after his executive order was stymied by a scaredy-cat Congress, in the closing of Gitmo, Obama may have been saving the best for last?