Did President Obama expect to be showered with praise for his exchange of five senior Taliban terrorists for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl? The president defended the swap today while speaking in Europe as simply part of his obligation to leave no American behind on the field of battle, a position that is eminently defensible. But given the public splash made by the White House about this story over the weekend, it’s clear that some in the West Wing thought the retrieval of Bergdahl would dovetail nicely with the president’s West Point speech extolling his decision to abandon the war in Afghanistan. The return of the only missing American soldier from that conflict would put a period on the war Democrats once extolled as the “good war” in contrast to George W. Bush’s “bad war” in Iraq.
If a Bergdahl photo op with the prisoner’s parents at the White House was not quite the moral equivalent of the Situation Room photos on the night of Osama bin Laden’s killing, it’s possible that some in the presidential echo chamber believed it would still boost Obama’s image in a second term badly in need of a triumph. But only two days after the president walked arm-in-arm with the Bergdahl family at the White House, those expectations have been exploded.
News stories about the anger felt by Bergdahl’s army comrades who allege that he deserted rather than being captured have tainted any good feelings about the exchange. National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s tone deaf comments on ABC’s This Week claiming Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction” now look to be as big a lie as her September 2012 Sunday show blitz about the Benghazi attack being the reaction to a video rather than terrorism. Congress is rightly grousing about the executive branch violating the law by not informing them of the prisoner exchange and many voices are being raised questioning the wisdom of releasing five top Taliban officials likely to return to the war against America for the freedom of a man who, if reports are correct, hated his country and abandoned his post on the field of battle.
Yet as the debate continues to rage about Bergdahl, the administration’s defenders have been able to put forward one coherent argument. If the Israelis can trade more than 1,000 terrorists for Gilad Shalit, one of their soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hamas, what’s so terrible about Obama bartering five Taliban prisoners for one American? As I wrote on Sunday, there are good arguments to be made that the seniority of the five released Taliban operatives as well as the implication that the U.S. is bugging out of the conflict in Afghanistan makes the American swap look even more lopsided than the Shalit deal. But the nature of the two redeemed hostages should also have told the White House that it was a mistake for them to expect to garner the applause that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got for his decision on Shalit.
At the time of the Shalit exchange, many in both Israel and the United States for the deal with Hamas blasted Netanyahu. He was reminded of his own writings on the subject of such prisoner swaps which spoke of the harm they do in encouraging terrorism and undermining his country’s ability to deter its enemies. But despite these compelling arguments, the overwhelming majority of Israelis cheered his decision. Gilad Shalit was a typical conscript who was merely doing his duty along with thousands of other young men and women when he was snatched by terrorists who crossed into Israeli territory. There was no question of misconduct on his part and concern about his welfare during his years of captivity became a national obsession. Shalit was considered every Israeli’s son. Leaving him in the hands of Hamas, even if the cost was the freedom of hundreds of terrorists, was unthinkable.
But unfortunately for Obama, Bergdahl is not an American version of Shalit. The emails he wrote damning the United States and the U.S. Army undermine sympathy for his plight. So do the angry denunciations of his fellow soldiers who not only resent his abandonment of his post but also point out that six Americans were killed trying to rescue a man who wasn’t loyal to his comrades. That the freedom of such a person was bought with the release of dangerous terrorists only makes it worse.
Rather than Bergdahl’s release being a cause for celebration as Rice foolishly described it, it is developing into yet another scandal dragging down the president’s public standing. And rather than diminishing in the days to come, it will only get worse as the Army is forced to begin an investigation of his behavior that is not likely to have a happy outcome for Bergdahl or his commander-in-chief.
It would have been far better for all concerned for the swap to be treated as an unfortunate necessity rather than a cause for cheering. The president didn’t have to host the Bergdahls—whose bizarre statements have only added to the embarrassment—or send Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel onto the Sunday news shows to tell the American people things that were obviously not true. Obama may have thought he would bask in the applause of a grateful public like Netanyahu did after Shalit was freed, but that was never going to happen. It is arguable that had the administration done this deal without trying to sell it as a triumph, it might have come across less like another public deception. But in the days, weeks, and months to come, they will continue to pay for yet another unforced error that revealed their lack of honesty.