Amid Bergdahl furor, lawmakers face political temptations and risks

Almost as soon as hearty congratulations were issued by lawmakers last week over Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release from captivity in Afghanistan, some were just as swiftly withdrawn.

“A grateful America thanks you for your service,” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) initially tweeted. But later, Cochran, in a primary runoff this month against a tea party challenger who has questioned his conservative credentials, deleted the message and sent out a revised statement, calling the exchange a “grave error that has serious national security implications.”

As the Obama administration’s swap of Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees faces a growing backlash in Congress, the issue has spilled over to the campaign trail.

In North Carolina, Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis said the exchange was a “glaring reminder” that his opponent, embattled Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, “has failed to be a check and balance on the Obama administration.”

With partisan tempers flaring in anticipation of the midterm election, there’s a temptation for lawmakers to deliver swift commentary on the Bergdahl controversy to position themselves as leaders on national security matters.


But experts warn that a slip could be politically perilous and lawmakers run political risks if they make quick conclusions about what appears to be a highly complicated case with many details still unknown.

“It is very dangerous for politicians to make statements about this in real time,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University who writes extensively about American politics.

“Some politicians who immediately praised the deal backtracked as more information emerged about how [Bergdahl] had left his platoon,” Zelizer said.

“At the same time, some politicians raising questions about his service might find themselves in a difficult situation should the criticism prove to be unfounded or off target,” he said. “Then they will be legislators who were not supportive of bringing a soldier back home with full enthusiasm and without qualification.”

Some lawmakers have wondered aloud whether the trade for Bergdahl was worth it.

Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, called the prisoner swap a “mistake.”

“Most people in America now have said he’s somewhere between treason and insubordination,” Inhofe said about the soldier, who was held in captivity for five years.

As the White House deals with the backlash from Capitol Hill, President Obama has said he makes no apology for securing the 24-year-old’s release or standing in the Rose Garden with the soldier’s family to announce his return.

“This is not some abstraction, this is not some political football,” Obama said last week during a news conference at the G-7 summit in Brussels.

“This is somebody’s child,” the president continued, and “we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back.”

The president’s remarks appeared to stoke further backlash, as lawmakers returned to work Monday with new criticism of the deal that was a surprise even to those with high levels of security clearance, including top members of the intelligence committees.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the issue had nothing to do with Bergdahl’s performance as a soldier. That’s for the military to sort out, he said, but whether the president put Americans at risk by releasing five Taliban prisoners.

“How many Americans are at risk of being killed, directly or indirectly, by these terrorist leaders we have just let go?” asked Cruz from the Senate floor Monday, as he criticized the administration for having “suggested that anyone raising these questions is simply failing to stand by the men and women of our military.”

Two members of Congress who were prisoners of war in Vietnam, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), strongly criticized the Taliban swap.

“The president failed us miserably,” Johnson wrote Monday.

Ultimately, the question over the details of the prisoner swap - how dangerous are the Taliban Five and why wasn’t Congress notified as required by law - narrows to a more simplistic one that lawmakers will want to answer correctly: Does the U.S. have a responsibility to bring every soldier home?

While some congressional aides were busy scrubbing their websites to erase earlier tweets, others have quietly wondered what message is being sent to the troops in the field as lawmakers suggest the military creed of leaving no one behind may come with an asterisk.