In the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the deal to win the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, objections focused on three issues. One was whether the price was too high, a reference to the release of five senior Taliban prisoners. Another was that the U.S. shouldn’t be negotiating with terrorists. Then there was the complaint that the Obama administration violated a law requiring advance notice to Congress of transfers of detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Those objections were discussed (and discounted) in a June 2 Times editorial.
But in recent days those who see the prisoner swap as a scandal — “Bergdahlzi!” — have shifted their attention to the question of whether Bergdahl was worth saving at all. Several former comrades have emerged to describe the circumstances of his departure from his unit in 2009 and to accuse him of being a deserter. There are also charges that as many as eight soldiers lost their lives because they were searching for Bergdahl (a claim scrutinized in this New York Times story). That narrative in turn has inspired critiques of the military’s insistence that “no one shall be left behind.”
I thought Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had an effective response to the “He wasn’t worth it” argument.
On his Facebook page, Dempsey wrote: “In response to those of you interested in my personal judgments about the recovery of SGT Bowe Bergdahl, the questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity. This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him. As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty.”
But I also think that the Obama administration bears some blame for the focus on whether Bergdahl was “worthy” of rescue. Given what was known or suspected about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance, the president’s triumphant announcement of the deal — complete with a guest appearance by Bergdahl’s parents — was arguably too upbeat.
Listening to Obama’s lament that “Sgt. Bergdahl has missed birthdays and holidays and the simple moments with family and friends, which all of us take for granted,” it was easy to jump to the conclusion that he was not just a hostage but blameless. Yet nothing Obama said was as problematic as this televised effusion from national security advisor Susan Rice: “He served the United States with honor and distinction.”
That remains to be seen, but it shouldn’t be the issue. Obama would have been wiser to let someone else announce the agreement that brought Bergdahl home. Dempsey would have been a good choice.