While the Obama administration is ramping up its efforts to defend the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap with the Taliban, criticism of the deal is no longer confined to Washington. As the New York Times reports, the Afghan government is also unhappy about the agreement that traded five key Taliban operatives for the freedom of an American soldier who may well have deserted his post. The Afghans seemed to have got as little notice of the deal going down as the members of Congress that the White House should have informed by law. Sources in Kabul are also unhappy that the exchange negotiated with the Taliban was strictly a one-off that allows President Obama to claim that he exited Afghanistan while leaving no American behind. As the paper reports, they expected any agreement about Bergdahl to have far wider implications and be connected to a general agreement that would have obligated the Taliban to make peace before the U.S. withdrew its major combat forces from the country. Instead, Bergdahl was liberated at the cost of granting the Taliban a major political/diplomatic victory that undermines any hope that the Afghan government could persist even after Obama or his successor washes their hands of that long conflict.
Few Americans will have much sympathy for an Afghan government that has proved to be an ungrateful and often ineffective ally of the United States in a struggle that has been waged largely, though not solely, for their benefit. Their motives for wanting a more far-reaching negotiating process with the Taliban may also have more to do with hopes of the Kabul elites for survival in a post-American/NATO Afghanistan than the best interests of the country. But worries about the decision on the part of the administration to drop its former insistence that any deal for Bergdahl be part of a peace process–rather than a ransom payment–should resonate even with Americans who have little interest in pleasing the Afghan leadership. What happened in this negotiation repeats a familiar pattern of Obama diplomacy. Just as the administration did in its interim nuclear deal with Iran, once it became clear that the other side was hanging tough, the U.S. simply folded. While liberals complain that critics of the president are being unfair when they accuse him of being weak, the common thread in this administration’s diplomatic posture is that they always fold when pressed by a determined opponent.
The administration trumpeted the interim deal signed with Iran last November as proof that the president’s belief in engagement with Iran was vindicated. But the point of the P5+1 process by which the West talked with Iran was not to merely negotiate with the Islamist regime but to get it to surrender its nuclear ambitions. In order to get the deal with the ayatollahs, the U.S. had to give in on the centerpiece of its previous demands: that Iran cease enriching uranium, a position that already had the imprimatur of United Nations resolutions. The administration also discarded any effort to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for international terrorism.
Fast forward a few months to the next stage in the diplomatic process with Iran and it looks like the same pattern is being repeated. Rather than focus on getting Tehran to abandon its nuclear program—something that President Obama pledged during his reelection campaign—the U.S. is again solely obsessed with being able to achieve any sort of an agreement, even if all it will accomplish is to slightly lengthen the “break out” time Iran would need in order to use its stockpiles of fuel to create a weapon.
That same trait was clearly on display in the Bergdahl talks. Rather than defend U.S. interests or to create a template that would stabilize Afghanistan, the only thing the administration wanted was Bergdahl’s freedom and demonstrated that they were prepared to pay an exorbitant price in order to get it.
It should be understood that liberating any American soldier held by the enemy, no matter the circumstances surround his captivity, was very much the president’s obligation. But the problem with the deal for Bergdahl was not just the price but that it reflected a desire on the part of the administration to bug out of the Afghanistan conflict. Though concessions are part of any negotiation, the Taliban seemed to be informed by the same mindset that the Iranians have shown in their dealings with the Obama foreign-policy team. They understood that if they stood their ground and made demands, Obama would eventually cave in to them, no matter how outrageous those positions were.
Taken together, the Iran and Bergdahl negotiations show that discussions of Obama’s weakness are not about metaphors or apology tours that are rooted in symbolism rather than substance. The last year of American foreign policy has proven that the key to the president’s diplomacy is that he gives up when pressed by opponents. The two negotiations aren’t merely bad policy. They show he will always allow his zeal for a deal and desire to abandon American interests to prevail over principle.