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.