The Obama administration presented the release of Bowe Bergdahl as an indisputably glorious moment for the country. Amidst the celebration on Saturday, Obama didn’t bother to mention that Bergdahl was a deserter. Obama considered the swap of five of the most dangerous terrorists of the Taliban for Bergdahl worthy of a Rose Garden ceremony. Even for the release of a decorated soldier, that would have been a dubious idea, given the shocking, precedent-breaking character of such a trade. But for Bergdahl, whose story of desertion and possible treachery and collaboration grows more troubling with each new report, a Rose Garden ceremony seems almost like a parody of liberalism.
Obama administration officials, straining to defend the trade, noted that the Israelis have occasionally released Palestinian prisoners for hostages. But one can’t imagine the Israelis ever executing such a trade for a deserter whose actions caused the deaths of soldiers (the number keeps climbing in press reports) who conducted a long and risky search for him.
According to Susan Rice, who professes perplexity at why Republicans still have questions about the administration’s handling of Benghazi, Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction.” Rice said that “Sergeant Bergdahl wasn’t simply a hostage; he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield.” No mention of his deliberately leaving the battlefield. Obama, too, described Bergdahl as captured on the battlefield. But by Tuesday the Pentagon’s press secretary was using more cautious language, comparing at one point the recovery of Bergdahl to the recovery of someone who jumps from a ship.
Perhaps the Obama administration will claim ignorance again, saying that it only recently learned of Bergdahl’s deserter status from “news reports.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, over the weekend, adopted a jubilant tone as if he wasn’t exactly clear on the circumstances of Bergdahl’s departure from his camp and numerous other officials played dumb about his undoubted desertion.
The risks Obama took for the deal — breaking the law by not notifying Congress, among others — wouldn’t be justified under any circumstances, much less these. Obama tried to give the deal a patina of respectability by casting it as part of America’s tradition of not leaving any soldier behind. But the release of terrorists has never been seen as a legitimate means of fulfilling that duty.
An administration caught out in recent weeks for its indifference to the health of soldiers was eager to argue that dire health concerns about Bergdahl justified its release of terrorists for him. Obama evidently hoped that the Rose Garden ceremony would arrest his flagging poll numbers after the VA scandal. But it has only raised new questions about the depth of the administration’s amateurishness, recklessness, and dishonesty.
For the sake of one soldier, who may turn out to be as anti-American as his captors, Obama has now endangered the lives of countless new ones. He breezily says, “This is what happens at the end of wars,” as if the released terrorists will stop fighting theirs. They clearly won’t. They were treated as conquering heroes upon their arrival in Qatar and will undoubtedly return to the fight.
Such an astonishingly dangerous move falls into the Obama administration’s pattern of treating terrorists as less than terrorists. It is hard to imagine almost any other White House even considering such a deal. But in an administration that once contemplated jury trials for the planners of 9/11, anything is possible.
Obama still harbors the illusion that if the U.S. treats terrorists with more consideration their behavior will change for the better. Far more likely is that it will grow more emboldened, as they see how easily the U.S. can be manipulated and overpowered. Terrorists have been crowing over the pictures of the U.S. surrendering five of its most avowed enemies. The deal has unified them and divided Americans. Yet Obama speaks of it as a great moment in peacemaking that will result somehow in “broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground.”
Obama has telegraphed to the enemy America’s lack of resolve in the war on terrorism and encouraged more kidnappings. The beneficiary of this transparently self-defeating gesture — a deserter who grew to hate the military and saw America as a “horror” — makes it an even more vivid illustration of national decline.