The release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, which we can now watch in a video provided by the Taliban, has caused spasms of outrage among Republicans (mostly) who take issue with swapping him for five high-value Taliban leaders. Conservatives, for their own political reasons, have also helped coordinate a campaign to label Bergdahl a “deserter” who fell into Taliban hands as a result of his own moral failings.
Don't get me wrong. It’s perfectly legitimate to debate the logic of any prisoner swap, or the part that Bergdahl may have played in his own capture.
But trying to rewrite the rules of war to score points against President Obama is a transparent partisan tactic, even in a situation that remains pretty murky.
The war in Afghanistan is winding down. When wars wind down, prisoners are swapped. Did we expect the communist government of Vietnam to keep American prisoners of war forever because they had killed thousands of Vietnamese civilians? Of course not. The lingering belief that some U.S. soldiers were left behind in Vietnam remains an unhealed wound for some Americans.
We must respect the opinions of soldiers who served with Bergdahl and blame him for the deaths of some of their comrades, even though the Army has disputed their claims. Their pent-up rage and anguish is real, even if some of their media interviews are being coordinated by Republican strategists looking to damage the president.
The inimitable Jon Stewart probably put it best when he boiled the controversy down to two conflicting American values: We do not negotiate with terrorists, and we leave no soldier behind.
The rhetoric has really gotten noxious, though. I have read that the U.S. should have left Bergdahl in Afghanistan. I watched Bill O’Reilly say that Bergdahl’s bearded father — who, as Stewart noted, resembles the Christian family of “Duck Dynasty” — looks like a Muslim. (O’Reilly must be called out here on two fronts — his implication that there is something wrong or bad about being a Muslim, and his impulse to characterize Bergdahl’s father in a way that is meant to denigrate him.)
As Republicans ratchet up the heat on Obama, it's worth imagining what might have happened if a Republican president had orchestrated the swap. Here is some lucid commentary:
Andrew Sullivan at The Dish: “The contradictions are, of course, bleeding obvious. Obama is to be excoriated for abandoning Americans in the line of fire in Benghazi and then excoriated for rescuing a service member in enemy captivity in the matter of Bowe Bergdahl. You’ll see that, not for the first time, the president cannot win. You’ll also note that one of the American right’s heroes, Bibi Netanyahu, released more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, some of whom had actually murdered Israeli civilians, in order to retrieve Gilad Shalit. Somehow Netanyahu is not regarded as a terrorist-sympathizer by the Tea Party."
Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast: "The Republicans’ audacity here is a bit beyond the usual. Let’s face it: There is no question that if President George W. Bush or a President McCain or President Romney had secured Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban prisoners at Gitmo, Republicans would be defending the move all the way. That business about notifying Congress? They’d have a dozen excuses for it. We got our prisoner of war home, they’d all be saying. That’s what matters. But Obama does it, and Bergdahl’s freedom isn’t what matters at all. It’s that we negotiated with terrorists. Well, yes. We’ve been negotiating with the Taliban for a long time now, trying to end the war. See, they’re the people leading the fighting on the other side. When you’re trying to end a war, that’s generally who you negotiate with.”
Kurt Eichenwald in Time magazine offers a history lesson about how the United States since its inception has struggled with how to handle prisoner-of-war negotiations with quasi- or non-government entities:
“During the Bush administration, lawyers developing policies related to dealings with the Taliban often referred back to the late 18th century and the Barbary pirates of North Africa….The lesson here? Even the country’s founders wrestled with the conflict of refusing to negotiate with criminals — or those nations that protect the criminals — and standing by American sailors. Some in government fought negotiations as bad policy that encouraged continued criminal acts, others demanded that the country act to save its men and, ultimately, talks took place and some of the Barbary states obtained the cash they demanded. This is the circumstance in American history that is closest to that presented by the war in Afghanistan, and demonstrates that there simply are no easy answers. Absolutism can conflict with other American values, and how that is addressed presents no simple answers."
The impulse to reduce complex situations to simplistic partisan talking points is a recipe for cognitive dissonance. If we never want to leave a soldier behind, then it's pretty clear we have to negotiate with terrorists. At least some of the time.