Unfair Trade

Unfair Trade
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There are times when the traditional Republican caricature of President Obama as an arrogant tyrant trampling the Constitution at home as he sells out American interests abroad is the stuff of cheap partisan potshots. And there are times when it’s true.

Absent a dramatic release of new information, the retrieval of America’s last (and by some estimates, only-ever) prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, will almost certainly rank as one of the darkest, most cynical chapters of the Obama era of foreign policy. Never before has so much principle and process been sacrificed — legally, morally, strategically — in order to gain so little. Never before has it been easier to draw a straight line between rank White House motives of ideology and partisanship and an act of open disregard for the security of the United States.

A former barista and ballet teacher, 22-year old Bowe Bergdahl joined the US military in 2008, after being rejected by his first choice, the French Foreign Legion (which is evidently open to non-Frenchmen). Without putting too fine a point on it, Bowe came from a fairly flaky background — homeschooled in rural Idaho by strict Calvinist parents, fascinated by Bhuddism, Tarot card-reading, and sword-fighting — and his interest in joining the army was said to be more about seeing the world in all its splendid diversity than protecting the homeland. In the words of his equally flaky father (who is apparently in the process of converting to Islam for some reason), Bergdahl naively believed the army to be a sort of “Peace Corps with guns” that would allow him to get up close and personal with the planet’s suffering. “He was not there for national security,” said dad.

Promptly deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Petraeus “surge,” it took only a few weeks for Private Bergdahl to find himself disillusioned by a military campaign quite far removed from whatever romantic notions he initially harbored, and he soon began emailing his father with complaints about “the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies” he had joined in service of the “horror that is America.”

On the morning of June 30, 2009, Bergdahl wandered away from his army base, and there are reports — though still unconfirmed — that he left a note to his comrades explaining that he was renouncing his American citizenship and going to “find the Taliban.” What exactly he wanted from the Taliban is also unclear, but the Taliban found him soon enough, and what they wanted was an American hostage. For five years he was held captive in the traditional fashion, appearing in propaganda videos in which he was made to spout anti-American rhetoric that couldn’t have been terribly different from what he already believed. Some reports suggest he possibly “went native” altogether, proclaiming himself an Islamic holy warrior and pledging loyalty to the cause of jihad, but of course it’s hard to objectively separate that sort of thing from run-of-the-mill Stockholm Syndrome.

The army spent several months trying to track Bergdahl down, and depending on who you listen to, the deaths of somewhere between six and eight US soldiers can be linked to the hunt. Every single former platoonmate of Bergdahl who has so far spoken to the media — ten and counting as I write this — have had nothing but bad things to say about the man they consider a deserter, and the direct cause of their comrades’ deaths.

Back in Washington, as the years progressed, Bergdahl (who, by 2011, had been somewhat strangely promoted in absentia to sergeant for his “service”) began to emerge as an increasingly useful chess piece in two of the Obama administration’s foreign policy priorities: the closure of the Guantanamo Bay terrorist prison in Cuba, and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan.

In 2011, the Obama government covertly began formal peace talks with the Taliban, and Bergdahl became a bargaining chip in the negotiations. The Taliban had five men they wanted released from Gitmo, and the White House’s curiosity was piqued. Democrats had of course long loathed the legal limbo in which Guantanamo detainees were perpetually housed as an embarrassment to America’s global reputation, and Obama had come to power promising the prison’s swift closure. Logistically, alas, the task had proven an enormous legal and political nightmare, so quick fixes were always appreciated.

Executive branch opinion on the merits of a Bergdahl-Taliban swap were hardly unanimous, however. The five men the Taliban wanted released were Gitmo’s highest-ranking, all having served as governors or cabinet ministers under the Al-Qaeda-aligned regime of deposed Afghan dictator Mullah Omar, with many having led soldiers during the early years of the Taliban-American war. Two of the five are wanted by the United Nations for war crimes; one was tangentially connected to the 9/11 attacks.

Between 2011 and 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was involved in the prisoner exchange negotiations, but ultimately concluded the proposed deal was not a good one, according to some conveniently-timed leaks to the Daily Beast. Obama’s defense secretary and head of national intelligence were also “firmly opposed” to the plan, as was the US intelligence community in general. Concerns were raised not only about the recidivism threat posed by the Taliban Five (nearly one-in-three released Gitmo detainees are estimated to have gone on to re-offend, and none of the Five have been particularly remorseful) but also the lack of safeguards to keep their odds of reoffending low. Under the terms of the final deal, the Five were released to the Kingdom of Qatar, a country whose record on the War on Terror is mixed, to say the least, and only for a year. In any case, the Taliban itself estimates around 95% of their leadership is located outside of Afghanistan anyway, an inconvenience of only minor importance thanks to their more-than-a-little-hypocritical savviness with modern communications technology. Secretary Kerry, for his part, has offered lame assurances that America could always just go back and kill the releasees if they get too out of hand.

That President Obama was willing to run roughshod over the opinions of much of his national security team would be bad enough, but according to law it wasn’t even his decision to make.

Last year, as part of its annual renewal of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress added a new provision, Section 1035(d) stating that no Gitmo detainees may be released from the prison without the defense department first notifying “the appropriate committees of Congress… not later than 30 days before the transfer or release of the individual.” Obama opposed this provision at the time in a signing statement, claiming it infringed on his authority as commander-in-chief. But signing statements are not law, and for the President to breezily disregard a legislative branch limitation on executive branch authority simply because he found it “burdensome” is to conjure memories of precisely those ad-hoc, Bush-era war power excuses his administration was elected to end.

Added up, we have a swap of an American of exceedingly questionable loyalty in exchange for the release of five terrorists of exceedingly high risk secured through an exceedingly dubious run-around proper constitutional checks and balances. And for what?

A famous 2012 Rolling Stone story on Sgrt. Bergdahl claimed his release could have high propaganda value for those seeking to swiftly conclude America’s involvement in Afghanistan. “Once the last American POW is released,” wrote reporter Michael Hastings, “there will be few obstacles standing in the way of a negotiated settlement”  with the Taliban, not to mention a nice symbolic beginning-of-the-end for a President stubbornly committed to ending the conflict by the hard deadline of December 31, 2016, a few days before he leaves office. Others have speculated the Bergdahl release may represent a sort of trial run for more ad-hoc releases of Gitmo detainees, and thus a way for the President to fulfil his no less arbitrary-timed promise to empty the prison “this year” — ideally before the midterms.

Barack Obama is a complicated politician, neither as dogmatic as his critics claim, nor as rationalistic and pragmatic as his supporters wish. Foreign policy, however, is increasingly proving to be one realm where the man does indeed prioritize ideology above all else; a realm in which the progressive shibboleths of ending Bush’s wars and closing Bush’s prison are unquestionable goods for which no price is too high — so long as it’s some other president who ultimately has to pay.

 




^ 58 Comments...

  1. Guest

    I understood that the 'Foreign' part of the French Foreign Legion referred not to where they served, but where the Legionaries came from.

  2. Oz

    If I understand, it's both. The Foreign Legion are not supposed to operate *in* France and it's open to non French (though it is a passage to French citizenship).

  3. AshburnerX

    Exactly. The Foreign Legion exists as a way for basically the worst and most desperate of humanity to redeem themselves and to start a new life in France. You get sent in to the worst, most tedious or dangerous assignments for a few years and then, once your tour is complete, you can usually get French citizenship. It's a good deal if you you don't mind being a soldier out of a depressing war film.

  4. Taylor

    "worst and most desperate of humanity to redeem themselves and to start a new life in France"

    Not really, it's more a path to citizenship for folks without much formal education for the vast majority.

  5. Glen

    Hmmm… kinda surprised he didn't know that. Must not have watched war movies and documentaries much.

  6. ReFlex76

    "Secretary Kerry, for his part, has offered lame assurances that America could always just go back and kill the releasees if they get too out of hand."

    – We have killed dozens of "suspected terrorists" for less, this is far from lame.

    – This is a huge win for President Obama and the US, yet there are those who still find reason to nitpick and spin.

    – The joke was that if President Obama walked on water, his critics would say "see, he can't swim!" The Bergdahl thing is proving that to be an understatement.

  7. ThePsudo

    The lame part is that he's arguing in favor of releasing people in ways that allow them to commit crimes so that we can punish them again. That hardly prevents crimes, but retaining them in custody would.

  8. Rachel

    Every time we release prisoners ever, we're releasing them in a way that allows them to commit crimes. Perhaps we should never release prisoners?

  9. @Cristiona

    Only someone completely blinded by their own ideology could possibly call this a "huge win".

  10. jdjddkd

    By all means, keep publicly defecating on the family that hasn't had their son for five years because you think they're kooky. The rest of the media circus and questioning of their religion and so on hasn't been degrading enough, I mean have you seen that beard he grew out?

    I started off conservative but this sort of foulness kept pushing me away. I really expect more of you than this garbage.

    But, yes, I guess it would have been the better strategic move to allow him to die in captivity and then release the guys anyway following the end of the war in Afghanistan. That'll be a real motivator for… something.

  11. fdsfasfassafads

    I hear you jdksfkadsfkas, I totally was a conservative once too but it's someone else's fault that I'm not, I take no personal responsibility for my own ideology and beliefs.

    I was forced into socialism by tyrants WRITING THINGS ON THE INTERNET WHICH ANGERED ME!!!!!!!!!!

    I felt a logical, manly response to reading something by a conservative with which I disagreed was to jettison my entire belief system and embrace the polar opposite belief system.

    So I totally support you publicly defecating on JJ for publicly defecating on that guy.

    Also, the devil made me buy that dress.

    (isn't that an awesome burn? eh? aren't i clever? it's like it's your fault that…but…ah, lol lol)

    When did this particularly infantile "It's someone else's fault I did some shit" burn get its start? I think it was Chretien, when he vowed to run in a third election, saying he really didn't want to but since Paul Martin was trying to shove him out he decided to run.

    Fuckin' man up and just admit you're a tax and spend nanny state socialist and it's nobody's fault but your own.

  12. jdjddkd

    I decided that I was becoming a bit too much of a jerk in my life, so I decided to improve on that by removing elements from my life that made me more of a jerk, which included consuming ultra-conservative media and flying off into a rage at lefties on the internet. That led to me drifting away a bit so that I'm not nearly as far to the right now as I was before, and I think I'm happier for it.

    This is not to say that the left doesn't have its own jerks– every single group on Earth I would say has at least one person like that, but the fringes of anything in particular tend to attract a lot of people with particularly negative mindsets. I view this comic as being frequently in lines with my own beliefs; it's somewhat conservative, though not that strongly, and aside from people up to nefarious business in the comments section it's generally fairly civil. That's what made it all the more disappointing for me when this turned up with yet more crass speculation on (focusing just on one problem for the sake of this sentence, there are many) whether or not Mr. Robert Bergdahl is a Muslim, as if that has any relation to anything even if it were true. But at least JJ isn't talking about how he tried 'claiming the White House for Islam', as certain other news media jumped to say. It's just a particularly frustrating story in the never-ending cycle.

  13. J.J. McCullough

    You know, war is awful. And you have to make strategic calculations. If the man was a deserter, and possibly aligned with the enemy, I don't think it's irrational or cruel to make his rescue a low priority, as opposed to something oh-so-important it's worth releasing five unrepentant terrorists over. There were defectors during the Korean war that America let languish in North Korean captivity for decades.

    I have sympathy for Bergdahl's parents, but I also have sympathy for the parents of those soldiers whose children died trying to rescue him. If Bergdahl's father encouraged his son to desert, which there seems to be some evidence of, then I think that makes him at least partially culpable in all this. That's why the kookiness matters — the Bergdahl family's eccentric view of the world appears to have been a root cause of the whole tragic scandal.

  14. jdjddkd

    Are we not releasing the terrorists eventually anyway? We are ending the war in Afghanistan rather soon, and we are supposed to release the prisoners associated with that in accordance to international law, and Obama apparently intends to eventually close down Guantanamo. Does it not then pare down to releasing them now for something or later for nothing (as Mr. Bergdahl was apparently getting fairly close to dying) ? He supposedly didn't have decades to languish in their captivity for us to decide to do something about it later, and we still are supposed to make what effort we can to return any of our POWs in a conflict.

    I'm not denying that Bergdahl is seeming pretty sketchy in all of this, and it's terrible if his desertion directly led to his fellow soldiers dying in the search for him– that said, looking into a few of those deaths there seems to be some dispute about whether or not it was search missions for him or his captors that led to their being attacked or if that was going to happen to some soldiers in the area regardless of what they were doing: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/04/world/middleeas

    That said, if he is directly to blame for their deaths as some of his former squadmates have alleged, is it better that he lived or would you have preferred that he died in captivity? I try to err on the side of life, myself. If nothing else, over here he can be tried in court and held liable as is seen fit among his peers for his crimes. They are, though, ultimately his– I just think it's poor form to involve his family in the story.

  15. Devil Child

    Members of al-Qaeda aren't prisoners of war. To be one, you have to declare yourself a fighter for a real country, and last I checked, the Caliphate hasn't existed for a century.

    For all practical legal purposes, they're pirates. Legally, they have no rights. Every single one of them could be executed tomorrow without violating any laws.

    That won't happen, and you can argue there should be laws even for criminals with undeclared nationalities, but there's no legal reason now in the US or UN to ever release our al-Qaeda prisoners.

  16. Cicero

    One of the problems is always how to deal with significant non-state actors (not to mention that the Taliban had all the hallmarks of being an unrecognized state rather than just a miscellaneous rebel group).

    Also, it's not quite piracy that you're thinking of, but if I'm not sorely mistaken there's a long tradition of executing spies/saboteurs as well, which combatants intentionally fighting out of anything resembling a uniform would qualify as.

  17. jdjddkd

    The Supreme Court ruled that they are to protected by the Geneva Conventions, so they can't be legally dragged out and shot. If the US is going to be holding onto them indefinitely, it's not going to be legal.

  18. Cicero

    Well, there was always the option of actually charging them with something (be it under Geneva or under US law). From there it would be a matter of the charge and the associated punishment. I will say that if capital punishment did factor into the equation (as it probably should in some of these cases), working to ensure that the process was actually carried out with some modicum of efficiency would be a goal (the US military has a real problem with actually getting around to executing those sentenced to death…they've got two prisoners who have been on death row for 25+ years).

  19. SES

    They were members of the Taliban, not members of al-Qaeda. The Taliban was governing Afghanistan (or had at least just been ejected from governing Afghanistan) at the time they were captured.

  20. Devil Child

    Key being "at the time," and sending them back'd be a criminally stupid idea that'd almost immediately ensure their release and resumption of terrorist activities.

  21. CAB

    I was thinking the same thing when I read Devil Child's post.

  22. Devon

    Honestly, what is gained by smugly calling the kid and his dad flaky? You don't like it when strangers mock you for your politics or interests, and it doesn't add to the discussion

  23. Cicero

    With respect to Bergdahl, I think "flaky" is a reasonable description based on the vast majority of the evidence seen to date. For example, the "Peace Corps With Guns" description of the Army hasn't exactly fit in over a decade (to the extent that it ever did). He seems to have been at least a little out of touch with reality. "Going to find the Taliban" would also definitely qualify as a bit flaky, at least from what I can tell.

    In the case of the dad, his behavior has me scratching my head as well. I can actually understand the whole thing of learning Pashto in the context of "I'll do anything I can do to get my kid back". From there, it seems he sort of "went native" in the sense that you've had a modest number of academics do so after extensively studying a given culture or region. That is really my best explanation for his post-capture behavior right now. I'd personally call the situation "odd" more than anything.

  24. Trenacker

    I’ve read and enjoyed your comics for many years, J.J., and I consider you an eloquent writer who often has compelling opinions. I also think that you have a gift for nuanced analysis. Here, however, you have presented a very flawed analysis.

    First, I think that you and your readership both would do well to consider Charles Krauthammer’s observation: prisoner exchanges will always be a “losing” proposition for the West. Liberal democracies value life more than their adversaries. As a result, we cannot expect to “balance the scales.” Either we exert enough force that we dictate terms, or we negotiate at a steep loss.

    You engage in a great deal of vicarious analysis of Bowe Bergdahl and his family. While I understand the desire to speak to Bowe’s character for clues as to whether he served his country with honor, you cannot seriously expect to derive any firm conclusions by rummaging through second-hand accounts.

    You then compound a bad choice by essentially judging Bergdahl on the basis of media reporting alone. Here was a man who wasn’t worth the effort! But why does it matter that he was formerly a barista and ballet teacher? Did you add those nuggets to provide us with a more complete biography, or because the stereotypes typically associated with those vocations might tend to support your argument that Bergdahl was a “bad fit” for military service?

    This is a lengthy essay, but you never once address the question of whether there exist any arguments in favor of prisoner swaps that don’t turn on the identity of the prisoner (here, you imply heavily that a “bad” identity equates to “bad” value). You also engage in sloppy analysis.

    You characterize Obama as “willing to run roughshod over the opinions of much of his national security team.” He is the President. We elected him to make the final choice, even against the advice of others. It is also interesting to consider that, according to Bob Gates, Obama bucked his closest advisers in deciding to green-light the mission that killed bin Laden.

    You never consider whether the decision to “get our boy back” could have positive downstream effects on the morale of American troops at all levels. The message is clear: it doesn’t matter how much you allegedly screwed up; we will come for you, because you are one of us. A lot of people have pointed to the Israeli appetite for prisoner exchange, but I think that another instruction parallel can be drawn to their policy of targeted killing. There are many arguments for and against targeted killing. Some claim that Israel successfully wiped out an entire generation of bomb-makers, and so drastically reduced the number of effective terrorist attacks against it. Others assert that the Wall accounts for the diminution of successful attacks and criticize the policy of targeted killing as inconsistent with the values of a liberal democracy. But some have pointed out that the Israeli program has a moral dimension: hunting down and killing terrorists signals to a besieged populace that the “bad guys” can and do get their “just desserts.” Could it be that Bowe Bergdahl’s homecoming was intended to convey a similar message?

    Your argument — that Bergdahl may not have deserved our efforts — is, however unpallatable, an important one when we consider the blood and treasure entailed in securing his safe release, but I think, too, that you did a disservice by presenting only one side of that case.

  25. J.J. McCullough

    I think you make some fair points. But ultimately the Bergdahl case divides people into either idealistic or utilitarian camps, and my analysis is strictly utilitarian. Bergdahl was clearly a man of dubious loyalty and probably a deserter. In order to get him freed, President Obama traded Bergdahl for five unrepentant terrorists, who no one denies possess a risk to the United States, and broke the law by not first consulting Congress. A lot of bad resulted from this deal.

    I certainly recognize the value of an army that never abandons its men, and treats all soldiers equally, etc, but I think most high-concept ideals invariably have to be compromised by practical events. We long ago learned to balance other lofty, theoretical ideals — all men are created equal, freedom of speech, etc — with day-to-day concerns of public safety, and the protection of other collective interests.

    I'm not arguing he should have never been rescued, I just think there were pragmatic calculations to be made. Considering the first purpose of the United States military is to defend the security of the United States, I don't think it's unreasonable for the commander-in-chief to let that principal concern take precedence over the fate of a single deserted soldier.

  26. Trenacker

    I agree that it is appropriate to weigh the merits of one man's liberty against a nation's security. My original statement was perhaps too condemnatory.

    One question that ought to be asked is whether Obama, anticipating that indefinite retention of the prisoners taken during the War on Terror will soon become untenable, was motivated by a desire to use the worst terrorists as bargaining chips while they could still be useful to us in that way.

    You make a strong argument that Obama broke the law to free Bergdahl and that we should be having a serious conversation about it. While I didn't pay much attention to that before today, it is a fair point. I am not prepared to excuse a president's bad behavior by appeal to that of the loyal opposition.

  27. Jake_Ackers

    Why is it that everyone thinks that the only solution to saving this man was to trade him for terrorist? How many POWs only came home at the end of a particular war?

    Bergdahl should of been brought home but not in this fashion. And what does how the conservative media talk have to do with ideology? You either believe in a position or you don't. I don't think how Hannity talks about a man's beard should influence your position on whether you think the income tax is a good or bad idea.

  28. jdjddkd

    I don't know the full details of what bargaining was going on, but five years is already a fair amount of time and he was apparently in pretty bad health by the end of it. The option to wait a decade before doing anything isn't there, and given that the war's wrapping up and those prisoners needed to be eventually released anyway I'm not sure what use they would have in exchanging him in rather short order.

    I noticed that many of the folks I listened to were kind of horrible a lot of the time and thought that maybe there might be a little correlation, so I stepped out of the echo chamber for a moment and got a breath of fresh air and new perspectives that allowed me to reevaluate a lot of my opinions. The information I had before led me to certain views, but the increased the amount of information that I had available afterwards (rather than just thinking "ugh, that website is probably mostly more liberal trash and I'm not going to bother") and with that extra information I came to different conclusions.

    It's really helpful to see something from multiple points of view instead of having the most perspective of the other side ever seen being the words of a straw man, and I was leaning WAY too hard on the more right-wing sources of news.

  29. jdjddkd

    *with the "what use THEY would have…" referring to the extremists, since I think that may be somewhat unclear.

  30. Bill

    I'm unsure how it works in Canada, but the American military leaves no one behind.

  31. John

    Indeed. Sometimes upholding the process over outcome is worth it; it is what separates us from the enemy. No matter how terrible he is, he is our soldier and we must get him back. Once back we can court martial him if need be.

  32. JoeHigashi

    That sounds very nice, but it certainly isn't true. As JJ pointed out, we left quite a few deserters in North Korea. In general, if the price to too high, and especially if the POW is a deserter, we just don't worry about it. Deserting does kind of break that whole social contract.

  33. Jake_Ackers

    No we don't but we also don't negotiate with terrorists. Why is this man worth more than John McCain or Floyd James Thompson? Or the Americans held in German war camps?

    Why is it that the Left believes the only way to bring this man home was to negotiate by releasing terrorists? There are other ways to bring him home.

    Why is Bergdahl's life worth more than anyone else's? At worst he is a deserter who should of been left there. At best Bergdahl is a solider who is putting his life on the line to prevent other Americans from dying due to these released terrorists.

    What will you all say when these terrorists cause the death of another US soldier? Or a US civilian?

  34. CAB

    You say that there were other ways to bring him home. What are they?

  35. Glen

    Threaten to execute who they want released.

    That's what they did.

  36. Ricardo

    Imagine the madness that would erupt if the US said "meh" to recovering an American POW, no matter how repulsive he may be and pragmatic it may be.

  37. Jake_Ackers

    Nobody is saying meh. Why do you think the only way to get this guy back is by negotiating with terrorists? There are other means of genuinely trying to get him back.

  38. Ricardo

    Is there evidence that nothing else has been seriously attempted? That this isn't a last resort?

  39. Guest

    But this is exactly what always happens.
    The position is very simple and understood 'WE DO NOT NEGOTIATE WITH TERRORISTS'.
    That is all they had to say. No surprise, no outcry.

  40. Cicero

    The issue, from what I have been able to tell, isn't so much that we got a POW back, but instead two frustrating factors:
    (1) The price paid, as JJ noted quite clearly. Particularly since the US could have handed several of them over to the ICJ or the UN at any time and probably had them vanish for life for war crimes (or at least languish for a decade or so amid agonizingly slow "due process" even if they did get off…I exaggerate, but not by much), handing them over has struck a lot of people raw.
    (2) The amount of obvious BS that has been peddled surrounding Bergdahl. To make a long story short, he was made out to be a hero only for a whole lot to come out after his release that strongly contradicts this picture quite clearly. This is reminiscent of the Jessica Lynch situation (where the story of her capture got played up absurdly by Media Relations, to the point that a PFC who got knocked out and captured morphed into the "Female Rambo of West Virginia"…and she got stuck cleaning up that record a few years later (as well as being blamed for pumping up her exploits when she had nothing to do with it), but is in its own way worse in some regards given that where Lynch at least behaved decently, there's enough to cast doubt on Bergdahl's "honor and distinction" that having the President more or less use his return as a political prop hit a lot in the military a bit raw.
    –>A major corollary to this point is that the Army felt it necessary to come up with Non-Disclosure Agreements for soldiers who knew Bergdahl. This stinks to high heaven. Why? OPSEC restrictions would have been sufficient to order them to keep their mouths shut until Bergdahl was either recovered or killed, at least for a /very/ long time. My best guess is that Media Relations started spinning up Bergdahl, the investigative team found that there was almost nothing to back that up and plenty to contradict it, and so they wanted to do their best to avoid a propaganda breakdown (sort of like what happened…it is telling that those soldiers not only spoke out against Bergdahl, which is a /very bad/ sign, but did so in contravention of an NDA as well).

    There's a third factor that's fed into the US reaction, at least from the military, and that's the pile of baloney that the military has been pumping out over the last few years on a whole range of subjects. Bergdahl is one instance, but there are all sorts of lovely moments in this vein. The sudden "about face" on repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell comes to mind as an earlier one (I'm not going to say which opinion from the brass was the correct one, but the sudden and dramatic reversal amid a political switch in the White House was *ahem* awfully convenient). More recently, there's the "troops are happy with a pay cut" statement to Congress, Obama coming out and using a bunch of troops in Afghanistan as props with his Memorial Day weekend speech, and so on. I've really gotten the feeling that there's a lot the military is less than pleased with, and that Bergdahl was simply a spark in a powder keg.

    One thing to bear in mind about the US military (I cannot speak to any other country's military) is that lower enlisted are not allowed to speak to the press without someone from Media Relations present. I don't know how far up the ranks this goes, but my understanding is that there are a /lot/ of rank and file in the military who are very much not pleased at what has been going on for quite a while…they just can't say anything, so you get the brass up on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon saying everything is fine and everyone is happy when that is quite clearly not the case.

  41. Devil Child

    The ICJ and UN Courts are jokes. They take forever to prosecute, don't even give out life sentences, and almost always release even the worst people they prosecute in short order.

    Why on Earth would we be dumb enough to send our al-Qaeda prisoners there when we have them locked up for good or could try them for capital crimes? We're not even members of the ICJ to begin with, and I see no benefit to joining.

  42. Cicero

    Why would we bother keeping them when, from what I can tell, we had no intention of actually prosecuting them or keeping them forever? As far as I can tell, there's no reason we shouldn't have had these guys prosecuted long, long ago.

    I will confess that I'm disenchanted with the whole process that led to their release…and that includes not having them up on capital crimes 7-10 years ago. That they weren't facing trial some time ago is basically a bipartisan farce. You're right that it would have been preferable for the US to try them (and in at least some cases, execute them)…but it's pretty clear that the US couldn't be bothered to make the effort.

    Then again, the whole handling of Guantanamo Bay is a wreck. I can accept that there was a legal limbo of sorts that we didn't plan on existing, but just because there was that limbo in 2001 doesn't mean we had an excuse for not resolving it in the decade that passed thereafter, when Presidents of both parties had significant periods of a unified Congress nominally on their side. It's not like there wasn't ample opportunity to set up a procedure for handling this…it's that neither party really cared to try.

    I think the better question is why we were dumb enough to grab these guys and hold them without trial for so long. I suspect that had this trade not happened, there would eventually have been a court ruling forcing their release in some fashion had we not tried them, on some version of the "speedy trial" requirement: There's something to be said for being unable to hold someone indefinitely in the context of a war that has no definite end date, no formal declaration, and a somewhat amorphous enemy on the one hand (making the POW context a bit tricky) and without formal charge or trial on the other hand.

    I agree that there's no benefit to joining the ICJ; the fact that I'd even suggest this in passing says something about how badly the US has handled this situation. I would certainly like to see some of Bush's people discuss their "illegal combatant" doctrine with the benefit of this hindsight. But in general, calling the US handling of many aspects of this fight "bad" is to insult the word "bad".

  43. Jake_Ackers

    We would of sent them to Israel, the UK or any other country that has beef with them. Doesn't have to be rendition. Extradition works too.

  44. jdjddkd

    Why would they take them, what would they do with them? The problem with a lot of these guys is that they don't really have evidence against them that stands up in court (at least not that can be released to the public) other than that they were in sketchy situations years ago. Now they've spent years in proximity with some really scary figures and they may very well be a radicalized danger without previously having done anything actually illegal.

    That's the problem with this mess, and shuffling them around from country to country (which probably don't want to take custody of these guys for the reasons mentioned above) just sort of punts the issue later on down the line until they die or get out anyway.

  45. Xander77

    Apparently there are people (or at least, one person) who genuinely believe that "the terrorists winning" meant conquering the united states and electing Osama as president.

    For the slower people in the audience, I'd like to emphasize that this is not the case. THIS is the world in which the terrorists have won.

    In other news, I don't know if what the Canadian policy on POW'S is, but if you let people know that rescuing men captured by the enemy is a tertiary concern, right after political bullshit and deep probes into their possible lapses (after all, if you follow proper military protocol, you can't possibly be captured by the enemy) is what we call "a bad idea". It tends to undermine army moral just a tad when you reveal that you don't really care whether your soldiers live or die or rot in a hole until the end of time.

    The Israelis traded thousands of terrorists for a LITERAL drug dealer and a couple of corpses – and will do so again in the future. And that was the result of decades spent considering this very problem, and what each option would result in.

  46. JoeHigashi

    I think you're missing a major point here. The people I've noticed who are most pissed about the Bergdahl trade ARE the army guys. It also undermines morale to reverse their hard won gaines to rescue someone who betrayed them and got their friends killed.

  47. Cicero

    Well, and to rescue that person by trading off five of the other side's commanders for them to boot, further undermining what they were told they were fighting for. And then to turn around and praise that guy very loudly and publicly to try and justify the deal (in what looks like a case of "the administration doth protest too much") when none of that holds…

    …but I'm repeating myself. You hit the nail on the head, Joe.

  48. Cicero

    I know you're probably being facetious with "after all, if you follow proper military protocol, you can't possibly be captured by the enemy", but I'll go to the trouble of pointing out that something like a patrol ambush can result in someone being captured while protocols were being followed. That seems to have been the case with Jessica Lynch: The patrol was attacked and they managed to grab her. It happens.

    As to the Bergdahl situation itself, a lot of the "political bullshit" comes from how EVERYTHING surrounding it has been mishandled. Given DC politics these days, there would have been some odd-and-end fur flying no matter what…but you throw in several years of bad spin from the DOD and the fact that Bergdahl pretty clearly walked off (the legal definition of what he did is arguable), undermining at least one side of that commitment, and you get a real mess.

    And as to the Israelis, all I have to say there is that their handling of the Palestinian situation has been awful on virtually every level imaginable.

  49. Jake_Ackers

    Yah Israel has to live with Palestinians and even with Hamas to a certain degree. So it's not the same. And still bad policy. Better to invade the Gaza Strip to get the soldiers back.

  50. Jake_Ackers

    This whole situation is like when Joker in "The Dark Knight" gives you two completely stupid options. When the people on the ferry had to blow up the other boat before they blew them up. Or other words, they turned the key on the detonator or die. Until the prisoner simply threw the detonator out the window.

    Why is it the Left thinks we negotiate with terrorists or let this man die? At the end of the day, there are several different ways to bring him home.

    Aren't the Left the first to say we shouldn't torture because our soldiers will get tortured as retaliation? Don't you think this will lead to more hostages? Those terrorists are masterminds who will create more attacks.

    Why is Bergdahl's life worth more than anyone else's? At worst he is a deserter who should of been left there. At best Bergdahl is a solider who is putting his life on the line to prevent other Americans from dying due to these released terrorists. Whether hostages or victims in attacks.

  51. blah

    hostages >> beheadings

  52. Cicero

    There are always multiple "third options" with their various consequences and effects. It is very, very rare to effectively only have two options in a situation. Heck, even when flipping a coin there's always the chance it falls down a drain or gets stuck on its side (or, to borrow on your analogy, you get tackled by Batman before the coin lands).

    The problem is that a lot of those "third options" involve things that America doesn't have the stomach for at this point.

  53. Trenacker

    Given that several operators reportedly died trying to locate and liberate Bergdahl well before the swap for his release, my guess is that we started with many options, then concluded that only two were still viable: negotiation or inaction.

  54. CAB

    I think this may be the most vicious and venomous writing I've ever seen on this site.

  55. Cicero

    This has triggered some of the most vicious and venomous reactions I've seen from a lot of places. JJ isn't the only one who's had an explosive reaction on one side, while the other side has been angrily defensive.

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  58. OldRareFan

    J.J., but as someone who has followed you since the RareOps days, and constantly checked the site during it's haitus for an update and was extremely happy that you came back to continue it… I think I'm done here for now. As an American, it's been great to read this comic to get an insight and viewpoint on Canadian politcs, something hard to get otherwise from within my country. While your posts have been insightful and thought out, this post of yours was surprisingly one-sided, illogical, and feels like someone parroting a party line more than a researched musing. It goes against what you have written before, and feels entirely out of left field. Yes, I know that you've generally identified as conservative, but some things you say here aren't even making sense knowing that.

    Feels weird to say this, but I think after a decade in my bookmarks, it's time for me to part ways.

    – a fan