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The Six Questions We Really Should Be Asking About Bergdahl

The Six Questions We Really Should Be Asking About Bergdahl

Was President Obama wrong to want to bring home Bowe Bergdahl, regardless of the circumstances under which he got captured? The White House would have us believe that this is the only real question in dispute and some, like the otherwise usually thoughtful David Brooks, seem to agree.

To me the answer to this question is obvious: Of course, the country wants all of our captured soldiers to return home, and the Obama administration was right to explore ways to get the Taliban to release him. While there might be a few chuckleheads out there who argue "let the deserter rot," that is not a view I have heard from any responsible voice in the debate, civilian or military. As David Brooks and countless others have said, the soldiers understand that you try to get all of your PoW’s back, regardless of how they were captured.

But it is fatuous to pretend that that is the only important question and the end of the debate. On the contrary, that is the starting point for the debate, and what is striking to me is how unable this White House and its supporters seem to be to engage meaningfully in any of the other reasonable questions. Here is a list of six others that are valid and still very much up for grabs.

1) Was the price paid a good one?

While we want every soldier returned to us, that does not mean we should pay any price for every solder. Two reductio ad absurdums help frame the issue. Most reasonable people would agree that it would have been irresponsible to meet the Taliban demands if they had been "we will only release Bergdahl if you pay us $50 billion and have President Obama address the U.N. General Assembly in the nude;" and most reasonable people would have leapt at the deal if it had been "we will only release Bergdahl if you put a podcast on the White House webpage expressing regret for how painful the war in Afghanistan has been." Some deals are obviously good ones for us, and others are obviously bad ones. The "bring every soldier home" principle does not trump all considerations of cost. So the question remains, was the deal a good one? In terms of prisoners released, Obama gave the Talilban the maximum he could of their original demand (they asked for a sixth prisoner, but he died in the interval). The Taliban clearly think they got a very good deal. The other assurances the Taliban provided were deemed inadequate by many Obama loyalists, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, earlier in the process. I think it is rather likely that this was a bad deal, or at least not a very good one, for the United States. And if the deal looks suspect now, the betting money is that it is going to worsen with time. How restrictive are the limitations on the freed Taliban and what are the chances that they will honor even those? It is certainly chilling to hear the boasts from the Taliban about how this deal encourages them to do more hostage taking.

2) Was it necessary to accept a not very good deal because of time pressures? 

I find it highly credible that the Obama administration believed they were under severe time pressure, partly because of Bergdahl’s apparently declining health and partly because of their own commitment to rapidly unwind American involvement in Afghanistan, regardless of the consequences on the ground. I bet the U.S. military also felt that they were under acute time pressure because they could read all of the signals out of the White House about how disengaged President Obama was from Afghanistan. The military may have advised accepting a not very good deal precisely because, given Obama’s weak negotiating position, "not very good" was the best deal we could get. But, Bergdahl’s health aside (and the silence out of the hospital where Bergdahl is undergoing medical examinations may be telling us something), most of the factors contributing to time pressure raise important other questions about policy that we really should be discussing. Do Obama’s actions prefigure an Administration policy that says we have no basis for holding detainees from the Afghan conflict after the end of this year? (One reason why the administration might have felt acute time pressure is that they may have decided they will have to give up the Taliban prisoners for free in a few months and so best to get something, anything, for them now before they are simply given away.) 

3) Should Bergdahl be held accountable for the circumstances under which he was captured?

This question is one that the White House and its supporters seem to strain mightily to avoid answering. Among officials, only Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey seems to have gotten this point right. Of course, he gets it because he understands the military, something that appears to be completely lacking in the White House — a distressing possibility six years into an administration. The military capacity to fight is a function of unit cohesion, which is a function of two important factors (among others). First, it is a function of the positive desire to fight for your fellow soldier, the "I have my buddy’s back and he has mine" idea that infuses the "leave no one behind" principle. Second, it is a function of accountability and fairness, the "if I screw up I will pay for it and if you screw up you will pay for it" idea that infuses the military justice system.

The reason so many military were enraged by the circumstances surrounding the Bergdahl deal was not that the Obama administration tried to get him back, it is that they tried simultaneously to absolve him of any accountability for his actions prior to getting captured. Incredibly, this was even being signaled in remarks linked to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who, as a former enlisted man, should have known better. Without accountability, unit cohesion, and ultimately battlefield effectiveness, suffers. So Charles Krauthammer has it exactly right: free him and then try him.

4) Did the circumstances of the negotiations preclude adequate consultations with Congress?

There are deep legal questions related to this, and since I am not a lawyer, I simply refer people to the Lawfare blog, where these issues have been discussed at length. What I take away from the commentary is that lawyers can disagree, but the Obama administration has not helped its case by invoking arguments it denounced when invoked by President George W. Bush and by otherwise contradicting itself on whether the failure to notify Congress was principled, or an oversight, or an inevitable result of time-pressures and sensitivities. None of the detailed accounts of the negotiations supports the idea that there was inadequate time to alert Congress to this deal. It is hard to avoid the inference that the Obama administration chose not to notify Congress because it did not want Congress to object to the deal.

5) Did the deal justify the victory lap in the Rose Garden and the rollout about celebration and recovering a soldier who served with "honor and distinction? 

As a former White House staffer
, this is the aspect of the whole business that I find most interesting and most distressing. I think President Obama’s staff did not serve him well in devising the rollout of this deal. The White House must have known about the ambiguities associated with #1, 2, 3, and 4 above. In view of that, even if they thought the deal was, on balance, the right one, why didn’t they handle it the way they handle all sorts of other controversial matters — throw it over the transom late at night and focus everyone’s attention on other, more favorable, issues? Why did they draw the decision so closely to the president himself, with the surreal Rose Garden announcement? Why did they do everything they could to make this the story of the weekend? And why did they give National Security Advisor Susan Rice flimsy talking points — thus repeating the very mistake that got her in such hot water over Benghazi?

I can think of only three possible explanations. First, perhaps they were ignorant of the likely controversies. I don’t believe this: All the reporting indicates that they did know — at least they are not now claiming ignorance as a defense. Second, perhaps they misjudged how the controversies would play; this is more plausible, and indeed they have claimed as much, but that raises questions about what advice they were getting from those who understood the military sensitivities better? Were White House advisors so tone deaf on military matters that they ignored that advice or did they not even receive quality advice? Third, they gambled, deeming the risks worth running so as to deal with what, in the hours right before the Bergdahl hyped-rollout, was their top-most problem: the VA scandal and the Shinseki resignation. Prior to hyping Bergdahl, what was driving the news was the VA scandal. Since then, there has been almost no oxygen left for the VA issue. Let me be clear: I don’t believe the White House would engineer the deal simply to drive the VA scandal off the front pages. But I do think it is possible the White House would opt for a higher profile announcement of the Bergdahl deal over what, in hindsight, would have been an obviously wiser, lower and more carefully thought-through profile, because they judged it would have the win-win possibility of being a good-news story that distracted attention from the bad-news story at the VA. That theory makes the decision more understandable, but not more justifiable. It is still bad staff work.

6) Does the White House realize that much of their problem here stems from self-inflicted wounds and a reflexive inability to credit critics with having a legitimate alternative perspective?

I have posed this last question to reporters much closer to the action than I am and the response I have gotten back is consistent and remarkable: The White House genuinely believes that all of the criticism it is receiving is a function of partisan opportunism and dishonest "Swiftboating." The reporters believe that the staff around the President do not think they did anything wrong beyond failing to see just how perfidious and venal their critics could be.

I hope the reporters are wrong about that. As I read the case, there is ample room for patriots of good faith to reach conclusions different from the one President Obama reached on each of the five questions above. Ruling all of these questions out of bounds and pretending that the only debate is between those who want to bring our soldiers back and those who are so blinkered by partisan hatred of the President that they do not may be psychologically comforting to supporters of the President. But it does not deal with the realities of the case.