Does America Contradict Itself? Very Well, Then.

The prisoner-swap deal that saved Bowe Bergdahl might have been a bad one, but it was also moral and necessary.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

All great powers, and many small ones too, behave inconsistently, anomalously, and hypocritically. Indeed, it’s practically in the job description. These behaviors cling to the policies and actions of most powers in the world today, like barnacles attached to the side of a boat. This is as true when it comes to narrowly defined matters of the national interest as it is with the complicated business of adhering to broad moral and ethical standards.

Just consider two recent examples.

First, the case of U.S. army soldier and Taliban prisoner Bowe Bergdahl. Unless there are secret understandings regarding some new approach to the Taliban, of which this 5-to-1 prisoner swap is the opening gambit, the deal President Barack Obama made to bring home the lone American prisoner of war in Afghanistan was driven almost exclusively by moral and humanitarian considerations. Forget the fact that this might set a precedent of negotiating with terrorists, which America has said it doesn’t do; forget the fact that the five Taliban prisoners released in exchange might return to practicing terror, which America has pledged to fight; forget the fact that the president was obligated to vet releases with Congress, but he didn’t; and forget whatever Bergdahl’s own motivations might have been. The deal was done to retrieve one of America’s own in the last throes of a war winding down and end the agony of this man and his family.

Right, wrong, smart, dumb in terms of U.S. foreign policy — when it came to Bowe Bergdahl, one ring ruled them all in the president’s thinking: human well-being and safety.

The second example is Syria, which is obviously more complex. While Bergdahl is a moral universe of one, Syria is being played out on a broad canvas in which over 160,000 have been killed and millions more have been uprooted. Here, American policy isn’t immoral, though some may think so. The country is the largest single country donor of humanitarian aid (however inadequately). It has done more than any other nation to help create a diplomatic track toward a resolution (however unsuccessfully). And it has been training and supplying vetted opposition groups (however insufficiently).

But, as I have pointed out before, this doesn’t mean U.S. policy on Syria is moral, ethical, or humane either; let’s call it amoral instead, where many considerations come into play. To earn the description of a moral policy, it would need to be driven almost exclusively by an urgent and relentless effort to stop the killing and alleviate human suffering, or at least by an aggressive effort to level the playing field for the inchoate opposition.

The president looks at Syria and allows other factors to shape, if not drive, U.S. policy, including fear of an open-ended military conflict, concern about Russian and Iranian reactions, and domestic opposition. Not even off-setting strategic factors — the conflict’s destabilizing influence on the region, growing jihadi influence, potential terror blowback on the homeland — can overcome Obama’s risk-aversion on this issue.

Indeed, in the case of Syria, more than a single ring rules them all.

Syria is certainly more the rule than the Bergdahl case is. There are very few major and complex issues that I could point to in recent history in which the United States acted primarily, let alone exclusively, for moral or humanitarian reasons — and many issues on which it seemed to scarcely consider these reasons. (See: Rwanda, Congo, Sudan.) Bosnia and Kosovo may have been exceptions, and Libya too. Perhaps they were relatively low-hanging fruit: multilateral operations that allowed America to act largely from the air without messy on-the-ground encumbrances. (In Libya, there’s been little follow-up, leaving instability and turmoil behind.)

Still, over the years, America has dressed up many of its policies as moral imperatives. Idealism and realpolitik mix both uneasily and easily in U.S. foreign policy and always will. That’s because Americans need a certain measure of illusion and delusion to believe in who they are, and that the country is acting for all the right reasons.

That all may be rife with inconsistencies. But another inconsistency is on display now: Many of the same people who demand that U.S. foreign policy more or less always be guided by moral imperatives are not comfortable with a decision that followed precisely that lead. They are criticizing the decision to bring Bergdahl home — or at least, the way in which the deal went down — not comfortable, it seems, that their own principles were put into action, with other factors taking a backseat.

The deal that brought Bowe Bergdahl home might have been a bad deal, but it was a moral and necessary one. That’s a contradiction worth embracing.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.

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