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How Not to Handle a Prisoner Swap

Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages. Benjamin Netanyahu traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Corporal Gilad Shalit. Ehud Olmert traded five living terrorists–one of them responsible for killing a four-year-old girl by crushing her skull with the butt of his rifle–for two dead Israeli soldiers. So there is nothing new about making deals with terrorists or exchanging captives with them. It’s even possible that President Obama did the right thing by freeing five senior Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban since 2009. Certainly Obama as commander in chief had the power to do so even if some members of Congress are miffed at not being consulted. 

What I find offensive is that the president and his team are not treating this as a grubby and inglorious compromise–an attempt to reconcile our competing ideals of “don’t deal with terrorists” and “leave no man behind.” Instead the administration seems to be taking a victory lap. The president held a White House event with Bergdahl’s parents. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flew to Afghanistan to commemorate the occasion. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called it “a great day for America.”

If only the president and his team showed as much passion about actually winning the war in Afghanistan. Sadly, it appears that the handling of this whole issue is symptomatic of the administration’s approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Their emphasis has always been on bringing the troops home, no matter the price, not on making sure that the troops accomplish their objectives.

In the case of Bergdahl the price includes encouraging the Taliban (and other Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda) to think that we are weak and can be rolled–to think that they can win American concessions if they take Americans hostage. This makes a mockery of our criticism of allies such as France, Italy, and South Korea, which have provided payoffs to get their hostages released. And it exposes our troops to greater danger down the line, once the Guantanamo releasees return to the fight–as they surely will, even if Qatar sticks by its pledge to keep them out of trouble for a year.

And what makes it all the more annoying is that Bergdahl is hardly a hero as he is now being portrayed. We still don’t have a definitive accounting of how he was captured, but members of his unit believe he was a deserter who walked off his guard post. And they’re angry about the whole situation–as former army officer Nathan Bradley Bethea writes in the Daily Beast

Bethea served in the same battalion as Bergdahl and participated in attempts to free him in the summer of 2009. Bethea is upset, and understandably so, because good men died trying to free Bergdahl–not only in the search itself but, he argues, indirectly, because the search pulled in so many intelligence and surveillance assets that other units were left exposed to Taliban attack. Bethea writes: “The truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”

If those assertions are true, then Bergdahl, now that he’s freed, should be court-martialed, because desertion in the face of the enemy is a serious offense. Whatever his ultimate fate, Bergdahl deserves our sympathy for his ordeal. His parents deserve sympathy for what they have had to endure too. But he should not be canonized and the administration should not treat his release as a high point of its foreign policy. Because surely they must have some more worthy achievements to boast of. Right?



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