The Palinite Tendency And Bowe Bergdahl, Ctd

Senators Attend Briefing On Release Of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

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.)

Hewitt Award Nominee

“Are you listening, Capitol Hill and America? The Bowe Bergdahl mess isn’t just a story about one deserter, but two. There’s the muddle-headed lowlife who left his post and brothers behind. And there’s the corrupt commander in chief who has jeopardized more American soldiers’ lives to “rescue” Bergdahl by bowing to the Taliban, while snubbing the surviving heroes and the eight dead American soldiers who lost their lives because of him. This cannot stand,” – Michelle Malkin, Dolchstoss princess, and living embodiment of what I described here.

A Problematic POW, Ctd

Idaho Hometown Of Released Army Solider Bowe Bergdahl Celebrates His Release

The president’s decision to exchange five Taliban leaders for Bergdahl continues to draw outrage, and not just from the Palinites. For instance, Ilya Somin doesn’t buy the White House’s legal rationale for not giving Congress advance notice of the deal:

The biggest problem with this argument is that the 30 day notice requirement contains no exception for “unique” circumstances where the President or the secretary of defense believe that obeying it might endanger a soldier’s life. The National Defense Authorization Act and other national security legislation contain numerous provisions that can be waived in appropriate circumstances by the president or the secretary. There is no such waiver or exception in the 30 day notice requirement.

If the president can get around the law anytime he or the secretary of defense believe that it might save a soldier’s life, then he could disregard almost any congressional restrictions on warmaking. For example, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld surely believed that their violations of congressional statutes barring torture of prisoners would help save soldiers’ lives. It is true that the president has the duty of “protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. soldiers.” But in pursuing those objectives, he must stay within the bounds of laws enacted by Congress, whether they be laws restricting torture, or laws restricting the release of brutal terrorists. Candidate Obama understood that when he rightly criticized President Bush back in 2008. President Obama, however, often seems to forget.

Protecting and rescuing an actual, endangered POW on the battlefield strikes me as exactly the kind of exception usually allowed for in executive actions. This was not some kind of ongoing policy; it was a decision to exchange prisoners, requiring secrecy and dispatch. We also find that the health of Bergdahl was a real question:

A secret intelligence analysis, based on a comparison of Taliban videos of Sgt. Bergdahl in captivity in 2011 and December 2013 that were provided to the U.S., found that the soldier’s rate of deterioration was accelerating. The latest video, provided to U.S. officials by mediators in Qatar, has never been publicly shown. Officials who have seen the video described Sgt. Bergdahl’s condition as “alarming.”

But Andrew Rudalevige sees Obama’s signing statement flying in the face of his past criticism of George W. Bush:

As part of the process of negotiating his release, the president decided to override a section US-POLITICS-OBAMA-BERGDAHLof the fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (Section 1035(d) for those keeping score at home) requiring that Congress receive notification 30 days in advance of a transfer of a Guantanamo detainee. When he signed the bill into law in late 2013, Obama issued a statement noting that while Section 1035 was “an improvement over current law,” “in certain circumstances, [it] would violate constitutional separation of powers principles. The executive branch must have the flexibility, among other things, to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.”

Presumably the administration decided that this was one of those circumstances and — like the Bush administration before it — declined to enforce what it felt was an unconstitutional constraint on the president’s powers as commander in chief. This might be defensible — but it ran hard into those past promises.

In Drum’s view, a court ruling on these powers would be constructive:

This would be useful for a couple of reasons.

First, it would be a sign of whether Republican outrage is serious. If it is, they’ll file suit. If they don’t file, then we’ll all know that it’s just partisan preening. … This is fine if a dispute truly is political. But this, like many other so-called political disputes, isn’t. It’s a clear question of how far the president’s commander-in-chief authority extends and what authority Congress has to limit it. If Republicans truly believe Obama violated the law, they should be willing to go to court to prove it. And courts should be willing hand down a ruling.

Speaking of “partisan preening”:

Obama’s sudden willingness to buck Congress on releasing Gitmo prisoners raises some questions for Amy Davidson:

President Obama’s signing statement on the bill said that it might be unconstitutional if it kept him from acting “swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries,” and, indeed, there is something constitutionally odd about a law designed to keep a specific list of people—some of whom, it can’t be said often enough, have been found not to be threats—imprisoned without trial.

But Obama should not get a pass on this. He has, in general, dealt with congressional attempts to keep him from closing Guantánamo, such as restrictions on spending certain funds to move prisoners, with a sort of learned helplessness, as if all his good will had faced an impassable wall. He has not tried to find the everyday limits of the various restrictions, or challenged them, substantively, in less hectic circumstances. Bergdahl has been a prisoner for years. What else, by that standard, might count as an emergency?

And Greenwald wonders how, in light of this decision, Obama can justify not closing down the facility entirely:

The sole excuse now offered by Democratic loyalists for this failure has been that Congress prevented him from closing the camp. But here, the Obama White House appears to be arguing that Congress lacks the authority to constrain the President’s power to release detainees when he wants. What other excuse is there for his clear violation of a law that requires 30-day notice to Congress before any detainees are released?

But once you take the position that Obama can override — i.e., ignore — Congressional restrictions on his power to release Guantanamo detainees, then what possible excuse is left for his failure to close the camp? … Obama defenders seem to have two choices here: either the president broke the law in releasing these five detainees, or Congress cannot bind the commander-in-chief’s power to transfer detainees when he wants, thus leaving Obama free to make those decisions himself. Which is it?

Meanwhile, the NYT reports that Bergdahl had left a note in his tent the night he went missing to say that he was deserting on purpose. Allahpundit sees another argument in favor of Bergdahl’s release collapsing:

Which would be worse: If Obama didn’t know about the note before making the swap, or if he did know and went ahead with it anyway? … There are vets in Bergdahl’s squad angrily accusing the guy of desertion and, more damningly, the parents of fallen soldiers blaming Bergdahl for their sons’ deaths. When you’ve got people as sympathetic as that hammering you in the media, the only smart play is “I’ll do anything to recover a missing soldier, period.” Message: I care.

But as I say, it’s not true: The White House would have had no problem leaving Bergdahl behind if the Taliban’s ask was Khaled Sheikh Mohammed instead of the five lower-profile savages we handed back to them.

Beutler finds this argument incomprehensible:

I hold no brief for Bergdahl, and take no issue with the Army launching an inquiry into the circumstances of his disappearance. But the inquiry wouldn’t be happening if the military hadn’t first secured his release. Having secured his release, they can now determine whether he deserves to be disciplined by the U.S. military. If you agree with the military’s leave-no-man-behind ethos, then this is the correct order of operationseven if the inquiry yields the most damning possible conclusions. Taking conservatives at their wordand here I’m talking about conservatives who weren’t recently pressuring the White House to do more for Bergdahlthey’re of the incoherent view that the agreed upon terms of his release weren’t worth it, and that those terms should have been proportional to an evaluation of his conduct that can only be conducted with any legitimacy now that the deal is done.

Amen. But Philip Klein decries what he sees as liberal hypocrisy:

Liberals spent a good part of the last decade excoriating anybody who suggested that they wanted Saddam Hussein in power or were pro-terrorist because they opposed the Iraq War, but this is exactly the same form of argument they’re employing by suggesting anybody questioning the deal wants to leave soldiers behind. In other words, they’re focusing on one result of the policy, without considering any of the costs. Unless liberals are going to argue that securing Bergdahl’s release was worth any price — even, say, giving nuclear weapons to the Taliban – by their own logic, they favor leaving soldiers behind.

I think extrapolating this kind of thing from one prisoner exchange – the only one in the longest war the US has ever fought – is more than a little disproportionate. There was also apparently some controversy within the administration over whether to release these particular detainees from Gitmo:

The question of the release of the five Taliban leaders was a recurrent subject of debate in the administration and was a key element of the behind the scenes effort by the State Department and the White House to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. The transfer of the five was discussed as a possible confidence-building measure to pave the way for a deal. The debates over their release were contentious, officials familiar with them say.

Those opposing release had the benefit of secret and top secret intelligence showing that the five men were a continuing threat, officials familiar with the debate tell TIME. But in the push from the White House and the State Department to clear the men, opponents to release found themselves under constant pressure to prove that the five were dangerous. “It was a heavy burden to show they were bad,” says the second source familiar with the debate.

And the fact that Bergdahl was held by the Haqqani network in particular, not just “the Taliban” as the White House says, complicates the question of whether we “negotiated with terrorists”:

In September 2012 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved an official U.S. State Department designation of the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization. The Afghan Taliban has not been so designated. The Haqqanis are unpalatable for another reason: they keep close ties to al-Qaeda.

Given that Bergdahl was held by an officially designated terrorist group, doesn’t it follow that Obama negotiates with terrorists? Not exactly. The U.S. bargained the release via the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, which served as an intermediary. “We appreciate the support of the government of Qatar in facilitating the return of our soldier,” White House national security council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden tells TIME. “We did not negotiate with the Haqqanis.” In short: we dealt with the Qataris, and the Qataris dealt with the Haqqanis. Did we therefore deal with the Haqqanis? Technically, no. In spirit, yes.

Zooming out, Simon Engler says the release also had strategic value:

Saturday’s prisoner exchange with the Taliban was not meant simply to bring Bergdahl home.  The swap was initially developed in 2011 as a confidence-building measure aimed at encouraging broader talks with the Taliban. Since Bergdahl’s release, administration officials and the Taliban have poured cold water on the notion that the swap could signal an opening toward more substantive peace talks between the two.

But Bergdahl’s release at least demonstrates that small-scale negotiations are feasible — and that the Taliban’s representatives in Qatar are legitimately connected to its forces in Afghanistan.

However, Niel Joeck argues that if it was a strategic move, it was a bad one:

President Obama certainly must have weighed these costs [that trading Gitmo detainees for a prisoner would make the capture of Americans more likely] against likely benefits, but here the story gets both confusing and more problematic. His National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, said that the exchange serves U.S. national security interests, presumably meaning that it is part of a broader strategic approach. If it is, however, why did Hagel say it was done to save Bergdahl’s life? The administration’s message is mixed — did the deal have to be struck quickly to save his life? If so, how does that serve a broader strategy?

These misaligned statements therefore raise the question of the strategy in Afghanistan. The release was not discussed with President Hamid Karzai, but were either of the two candidates to succeed him consulted? If not, are we again sowing seeds of mistrust when we develop strategy without regard to the effect on allies?

David Axe, meanwhile, is outraged that Bergdahl is being blamed for the deaths of soldiers who tried to rescue him:

Two hundred and ninety-five coalition troops died in Afghanistan in 2008. Five hundred and twenty-one died in 2009. More than 700 perished in 2010. Bergdahl’s regiment was going to fight—and suffer casualties—regardless of whether planners tailored the unit’s operations to help gather intelligence on Bergdahl’s whereabouts. In fact, if you’re willing to blame Bergdahl for soldiers’ deaths, then you also have to attribute to him all the lives he “saved.” The slight shift in operations that reportedly occurred because of Bergdahl almost certainly kept U.S. units off of some remote roads and out of certain enemy-controlled villages. Attacks did not take place that might have otherwise.

And Republicans can hardly claim they’re not playing politics at all here, seeing as GOP strategists are helping Bergdahl’s critics get press. Previous Dish on the POW controversy here and here.

(Top photo: A sign announcing the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits outside the Power House restaurant on Main Street June 1, 2014 in Hailey, Idaho. By Scott Olson/Getty Images. Bottom photo: Jani Bergdahl, the mother of Bowe, walks through the Colonnade with President Barack Obama to speak in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 31, 2014. By Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

The Best Of The Dish Today

Perhaps the real “scandal” in the Bowe Bergdahl affair was simply optics. The administration – including Hagel and POTUS – seemed to think a prisoner release would be unalloyed good news, without fully absorbing what servicemembers had learned about Bergdahl and the resentment his apparent AWOL and possibly deserter status had generated. Chuck Todd even reports that they expected euphoria. Allahpundit writes:

This seems to boil down to a fundamental misunderstanding by the White House of military culture. If soldiers had reacted the way O expected, celebrating the release of a POW, it really would have tamped down the criticism of Bergdahl. For obvious reasons: If the men who risk their lives defending America are willing to forgive him and welcome his return, who are the rest of us to question him? But that’s not how the men who served with him reacted; in fact, unless I missed it, not a single member of Bergdahl’s unit has spoken up in his defense. Obama gambled heavily that both veterans and the media would keep quiet. He lost.

But that doesn’t, of course, get to the core of the issue: should the president have seized a chance to rescue the service-member or not? When you posit the alternative – leaving the guy with apparently iffy health in enemy hands for ever – you can see the POW flags flying everywhere. So, yes, on this as on many issues, the president cannot win. I’m sure he’s used to that by now.

Today, I tried to absorb the news of a mass grave of 800 neglected children in a septic tank – victims of a brutal, evil Catholic legacy in Ireland and of the sexual teachings that have so come to distort Christianity. And we explored the actual costs of curtailing coal’s damage to the planet.

Plus: shit-faced monkeys; the delights of smoking cigarettes; the college adviser who wants you to kill yourself; and Jonah Hill’s impersonation of Alec Baldwin.

The most popular posts of the day were The Palin Tendency and Bowe Bergdahl, followed by Catholicism’s Crimes Against Humanity.

Several 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. 27 more readers became subscribers today, and we’re so close to 29,000 mark – only 31 short. Subscribe here to get us there by midnight. (And drop us an email; we always like hearing from new subscribers.)

See you in the morning.

A Problematic POW, Ctd

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Fred Kaplan clears up a few misconceptions about this weekend’s exchange of five captured Taliban leaders for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl:

First, while Obama and his diplomats made the deal on their own (in line with his powers as commander-in-chief), it’s not true that he left Congress out of the picture. He briefed a small group of senators in January 2012, when a deal first seemed in the offing. Sen. John McCain reportedly threw a fit, objecting that the detainees to be released had killed American soldiers, but after talking with John Kerry (at the time, still a senator and a friend), came around to the idea. (This may be why McCain, though displeased with the detainees’ release, is not raising his usual hell in public appearances now.)

Second, it’s not the case—at least if things work out as planned—that the five detainees, some of whom were high-level Taliban officers in their younger days, will go back and rejoin the fight. The deal requires them to remain in Qatar for one year; after that, Americans and Qataris will continue to monitor them—though it’s not yet clear what that means; in the coming days, someone should clarify things.

“There’s one more potential bit of good news,” he adds:

This whole exercise has demonstrated that the Taliban’s diplomatic office in Qatar does have genuine links to the Taliban high command. (A few years ago, when fledgling peace talks sputtered and then failed, many concluded that it was a freelance operation unworthy of attention.) And the fact that the exchange came off with clockwork precision (see the Wall Street Journal’s fascinating account of how it happened) suggests that deals with the Taliban are possible, and that a deal signed can be delivered.

Furthermore, Michael Crowley points out that Obama did not, strictly speaking, “negotiate with terrorists”:

[H]owever nasty the Taliban may be, it’s not really a “terrorist” enemy as we commonly understand the word. The group is not on the State Department’s official list of terrorist organizations and has has long been a battlefield enemy in the ground war for control of Afghanistan. It is not plotting to, say, hijack American airplanes—even if it does have sympathies with people who are. Ditto the Taliban leaders released over the weekend. They are members of a savage and deplorable organization. But unlike, say, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, they have no history of plotting attacks on the U.S. homeland. Given all that, the real debate isn’t whether Obama negotiated with terrorists—he didn’t. The mystery lies in the particulars of the deal.

Shmuel Rosner compares the swap to the deals Israel makes on a regular basis, sometimes trading hundreds of prisoners for one captured soldier:

So the U.S. got a captured soldier back in exchange for five Afghan inmates. Big deal. Five-for-one is a deal Israel would take in a heartbeat. But there’s truth to the claim that such deals increase the appetite of a terrorist organization in two ways. First, they encourage terrorists to adopt a policy of an abduction of soldiers in the hope of getting more inmates out. Second, they allow terrorists to worry less about being captured by the U.S., since they can hope for a later release.

Israel had been attempting for years to try to resist these exchanges. In 2008, following a heavily criticized deal in which Israel let murderers go in exchange for body bags, then Defense Minister Ehud Barak appointed a special committee, headed by former High Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar, to make recommendations to the Israeli government on future exchange deals. The Shamgar committee pushed to put limits on prisoner swaps, for the reasons above. But a committee is little match for a mourning family.

But Elliott Abrams identifies a big difference between the US and Israel that, in his view, made this deal unwise:

The trade for Sgt. Bergdahl has given terrorists a real incentive to capture and trade American servicemen and women– and they are very vulnerable. Israeli troops are in Israel, where they are well protected. Occasionally someone tunnels under the border or raids over it, but not often; and Israeli troops in the West Bank take very special care to prevent kidnappings. Americans are in about 150 countries and there are thousands in places where they roam without much protection: 11,000 in Kuwait, 9500 in the UK, 40,000 in Germany. All three countries have significant extremist activity that keeps their police very busy.

Today they are at greater risk because they are more valuable to terrorists. That is a cost of this trade that comparisons to Israel do not correctly measure.

The deal also makes Benjamin Wittes queasy:

John Bellinger is correct that “it is likely that the U.S. would be required, as a matter of international law, to release [the Taliban detainees] shortly after the end of 2014, when U.S. combat operations cease in Afghanistan.” We are, after all, winding down this conflict, and the authority to detain Taliban forces—as opposed to Al Qaeda forces—won’t last that much longer than the end of combat. So what we may have traded here is one POW deserter (assuming that’s what Bergdahl was, for a moment) in exchange for hastening the release of five Taliban by an indeterminate number of months.

Was it the right move? I don’t know. I certainly don’t think, as Marty Lederman put it on Saturday, that it is “truly wonderful news.” Ask me in a couple of years whether it was a good idea—when we know if any constructive dialog with the Taliban developed out of these contacts, when we know how the US draw-down in Afghanistan went, when we know whether and how the released detainees reengaged with the fight, and when we know exactly what the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance really were. The people who did this deal didn’t have the luxury of remaining agnostic about its merits that long. I will not criticize them.

Keating doubts that the five baddies we released to Qatar will ever pose much threat to Americans:

The reason that the detainee recidivism rates have been dropping is likely not because Guantanamo has become so much more effective at rehabilitating detainees. It likely has more to do with the fact that as the U.S. has drawn down its troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are fewer opportunities to engage in hostilities against Americans in these countries. If all goes according to plan, by the time these five can get back to Afghanistan, they won’t pose much of a threat to U.S. troops because there won’t be that many U.S. troops there for them to fight.

Opponents of the deal are using Nathan Bradley Bethea’s piece from yesterday, which alleged that Bergdahl had deserted his unit, to make their case, but Bethea isn’t having it:

Zack Beauchamp suspects that Republicans trying to make political hay out of this exchange are probably not willing to make the case that we should have left a POW to die in Taliban custody:

Bethea’s distinction between Bergdahl’s disappearance and his release is significant. It’s one thing to think, as some veterans appear to, that Bergdahl should be now be tried by an American court for desertion (that appears unlikely, according to administration statements). It’s a different thing entirely to believe an American soldier should remain in the Taliban’s clutches indefinitely.

The problem with the emerging Republican position is that it implicitly forces the GOP to defend the latter; that Bergdahl should have been left. No amount of speculation about hypothetical future kidnappings or quibbling over legal niceties are likely, in political terms, to overcome the emotionally powerful support for captured veterans’ freedom. And after the initial wave of press coverage subsides, Republican leaders will probably get that. Bergdahl’s release will not remain a partisan flashpoint for very long.

Bing West advises the administration to manage the controversy by letting the Army court-martial Bergdahl:

By any reckoning, the release of five dedicated Taliban terrorists was a high price to pay for the return of a single American captive. It will be a price worth paying only if the Army is allowed to live up to its own high standards. Left to its own procedures, the Army as an institution will proceed with a thorough judicial investigation. Most probably this will result in a court-martial. The evidence is too compelling to be ignored. If there is a finding of guilt, a judge may mitigate the sentence.

But not to proceed with a judicial course would harm the integrity of the Army. There is a deep anger throughout the ranks about Bergdahl’s behavior. The administration would be well advised not have anything more to do with Bergdahl. Let the Army system work. The Army can be trusted to follow the correct course.

General Martin E. Dempsey statement makes clear that Bergdahl will be investigated:

In response to those of you interested in my personal judgments about the recovery of SGT Bowe Bergdahl, the questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity. This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him. As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family. Finally, I want to thank those who for almost five years worked to find him, prepared to rescue him, and ultimately put themselves at risk to recover him.

The Palin Tendency And Bowe Bergdahl

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 US-POLITICS-OBAMA-BERGDAHLStates, 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.)

A Problematic POW

The last American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, was freed on Saturday after five years in Taliban captivity:

Bergdahl, 28, is believed to have slipped away from his platoon’s small outpost in Af­ghanistan’s Paktika province on June 30, 2009, after growing disillusioned with the U.S. military’s war effort. He was captured shortly afterward by enemy ­forces and held captive in Pakistan by insurgents affiliated with the Taliban. At the time, an entire U.S. military division and thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers devoted weeks to searching for him, and some soldiers resented risking their lives for someone they considered a deserter.

Bergdahl was recovered Saturday by a U.S. Special Operations team in Afghanistan after weeks of intense negotiations in which U.S. officials, working through the government of Qatar, negotiated a prisoner swap with the Taliban. In exchange for his release, the United States agreed to free five Taliban commanders from the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Eli Lake and Josh Rogin name the bad guys we traded for Bergdahl:

A senior U.S. defense official confirmed Saturday that the prisoners to be released include Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Mohammed Nabi Omari. While not as well known as Guantanamo inmates like 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Taliban 5 were some of the worst outlaws in the U.S. war on terror. And their release will end up replenishing the diminished leadership ranks of the Afghan Taliban at a moment when the United States is winding down the war there. “They are undoubtedly among the most dangerous Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior editor at the Long War Journal who keeps a close watch on developments concerning the detainees left at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

I’ll be honest here and simply report that I am deeply conflicted about this event. I totally see the importance of maintaining the ethic of never leaving a soldier behind on the battlefield. Equally, it’s depressing that we had to release serious Taliban prisoners of war to get him back. This is an excruciating choice – but if Bergdahl’s health was in jeopardy, the administration made what strikes me as the right move. Even the Israelis do this kind of thing quite regularly.

Then there’s the question of the actual soldier in question and the circumstances of his capture. Was Bergdahl really a deserter? Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in his battalion, says yes:

He is safe, and now it is time to speak the truth.

And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down. On the night prior to his capture, Bergdahl pulled guard duty at OP Mest, a small outpost about two hours south of the provincial capitol. The base resembled a wagon circle of armored vehicles with some razor wire strung around them. A guard tower sat high up on a nearby hill, but the outpost itself was no fortress. Besides the tower, the only hard structure that I saw in July 2009 was a plywood shed filled with bottled water. Soldiers either slept in poncho tents or inside their vehicles.

The next morning, Bergdahl failed to show for the morning roll call. The soldiers in 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company discovered his rifle, helmet, body armor and web gear in a neat stack. He had, however, taken his compass. His fellow soldiers later mentioned his stated desire to walk from Afghanistan to India.

The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey later wrote that “[w]hether Bergdahl…just walked away from his base or was lagging behind on a patrol at the time of his capture remains an open and fiercely debated question.” Not to me and the members of my unit. Make no mistake: Bergdahl did not “lag behind on a patrol,” as was cited in news reports at the time. There was no patrol that night. Bergdahl was relieved from guard duty, and instead of going to sleep, he fled the outpost on foot. He deserted. I’ve talked to members of Bergdahl’s platoon—including the last Americans to see him before his capture. I’ve reviewed the relevant documents. That’s what happened.

Morrissey believes the White House erred in bringing Bergdahl home with fanfare:

[T]here is a big difference between swapping for a man who’s accused of desertion (and whose disappearance cost at least six soldiers’ lives, and possibly more), and cheering his release in a presidential Rose Garden speech along with his family. That is a return for a hero, not a potential deserter (who, we should stress, has not yet been charged with that crime, let alone convicted). Did no one at the White House bother to check into the details of Bergdahl’s disappearance, or calculate what that might mean politically in this trade? Everyone from Obama on down seems to have been caught flat-footed in a controversy of their own making … again.

House Republicans are promising hearings, of course, but not because Bergdahl might have deserted:

On a series of Sunday talk shows, Republican lawmakers slammed the decision to carry out the prisoner swap as a dangerous concession to the militant group and a violation of long-standing U.S. policy not to negotiate with terrorist groups. They also said the White House had violated a law requiring the administration to give Congress 30 days notice before such a swap. “The question going forward is have we just put a price on other U.S. soldiers?” Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texan Republican, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I do not think the way to deal with terrorists is through releasing other violent terrorists.”

With Republicans blasting the Obama administration for, in their view, surrendering to terrorist hostage taking, the White House is defending the move as an effort to bring back a prisoner of war and show other troops the lengths to which Washington will go to ensure that none are left on the battlefield. On Sunday, administration officials said the swap was in line with the military’s commitment to see all its soldiers return from war, as a reflection of its “leave no man behind” ethos.

But Lt. Col. Robert Bateman reminds critics that exchanging prisoners with the enemy, no matter how unsavory the enemy, isn’t a novel concept:

As George Washington did, as James Madison did, as Abraham Lincoln did, our current president decided to make a trade. Sergeant Bowe Beghdahl, promoted in absentia twice since his capture in Afghanistan, is now free. We let loose five of theirs to regain the only American held by the enemy. This is not something new, it is a return to the old. Those who oppose the idea are taking offense with George Washington, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln.

Martin Lederman addresses the complaint that the administration broke the law in carrying out the swap without notifying Congress beforehand:

Secretary Hagel’s statement suggests that he did comply with the substantive requirements of Section 1035, but that he notified Congress today, not 30 days ago.  It’s difficult to imagine that Congress would have intended to insist upon such a 30-day delay if the legislators had actually contemplated a time-sensitive prisoner-exchange negotiation of this sort; but the statute does not on its face address such a rare (and likely unanticipated) case.  Note that the President wrote this in his signing statement:  “Section 1035 does not . . . eliminate all of the unwarranted limitations on foreign transfers and, in certain circumstances, would violate constitutional separation of powers principles. The executive branch must have the flexibility, among other things, to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.”  Perhaps he had the prospect of a Bergdahl negotiation in mind . . . .

Josh Rogin sees the deal as a possible first step by Obama toward clearing out Gitmo by executive fiat:

In his 2014 State of the Union address, Obama promised to shutter the prison built on Cuban soil by the end of the year. Obama now has seven months to fulfill his latest promise to shut down Guantanamo—or come as close to it as he can. During that time, Congress will be unable to prevent the release of the 149 prisoners still there.

“This whole deal may have been a test to see how far the administration can actually push it, and if Congress doesn’t fight back they will feel more empowered to move forward with additional transfers,” said one senior GOP senate aide close to the issue. “They’ve lined up all the dominoes to be able to move a lot more detainees out of Guantanamo and this could be just the beginning.”

That’s what I take away from this. We’ve just released five actual enemy combatants by executive order. Why not release the innocent ones by the same rubric? When you contemplate this move – and the EPA’s tough stance on coal along with the zero option in Afghanistan – you begin to see Obama re-take the initiative in his last two and a half years. Imagine the legacy: no troops in Iraq or Afghanistan; Gitmo closed; universal healthcare entrenched; Iran’s nuclear threat defused; marriage equality in all fifty states; the end of marijuana Prohibition; and carbon energy cut down to size.

Repeat after me: meep meep, motherfuckers.

Two Captives, Worlds Apart

Lawrence Wright compares Gilad Shalit to Bowe Bergdahl:

In June, 2009, an American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, was captured by the Taliban. His name is practically unknown. He is still being held, but he is rarely mentioned in the press, political figures never invoke him, his image is rarely seen. He’s an afterthought in the long war in Afghanistan, if indeed he is ever thought of at all.

Ackerman picks up on the same parallel:

[T]he U.S./NATO military command, as much as it wants Bergdahl released, do not make Bergdahl a major public symbol. That would only increase the Taliban’s negotiating position, making it more likely that ISAF would box itself into the corner that Israel just faced. I don’t want to criticize Benjamin Netanyahu for striking the deal with Hamas to release Shalit. The decision must have been agonizing. It’s just important to recognize the steps that led to such an awful decision, and not to repeat them.

Remembering Bowe Bergdahl


He's an American soldier, captured by the Taliban in uncertain circumstances, and now being disgustingly videoed for propaganda purposes. What he says in the video is obviously not to be taken seriously; he is under duress and in captivity. We do not know whether he has been tortured or mistreated, although he is at pains in this video to say he wasn't.

What we do know is that the Taliban is interested in making this point:

He says that unlike prisoners of the United States, which has tortured Muslim captives “in Bagram, in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib,” he has been treated fairly.

If and when he is released or rescued, we will know the full story. But it stings deeply to realize that the Taliban can now preen as morally superior in their treatment of prisoners than the US under Bush and Cheney – and have a smidgen of a point.

Until his rescue, please pray for him and his family – and for all the servicemembers out there today, risking their lives for us, and for all those military families who spent this Christmas with someone missing, and in harm's way.

That Missing Soldier

Thanks for the replies. As I feared, he is still captured, and the Pentagon is saying nothing about this. That may well be for good reasons. But I'm amazed that the media has all but forgotten about him, and the treatment he may be receiving. Please pray for him, and his family. And don't forget him – or all the other young men and women risking lives in a war that seems to have become its own rationale. While we argue, they fight. We need to make our arguments worthy of their sacrifice and dedication and courage. May God protect them. The Facebook page set up to keep Bowe Bergdahl's case alive is here. Why not add your voice?