Thursday, June 5, 2014

Should Bergdahl Storm be Denied?


"We cannot and will not negotiate with al Qaeda."

Or at least, that's what the Obama administration used to say.

"We don't make concessions to terrorists," they insisted.

The family of Warren Weinstein has heard this rationale a lot.  Weinstein is a respected American consultant in the field of international socioeconomic development who was working in Pakistan when he was captured by al Qaeda in 2011.  He's still being held for ransom somewhere in Pakistan, and is believed to be in frail health.

Now that Bowe Bergdahl has been freed by the Taliban as the result of a prisoner exchange orchestrated by the Obama administration, Weinstein's family is calling the president's bluff regarding al Qaeda.

"They have shown with [Bergdahl's] exchange that they can get this done," Weinstein's daughter, Alisa, has told CNN.  "So I know that they can do it for us."

Which is true, now, isn't it?

More's the pity.

The White House claims that it had a greater obligation to free a member of the United States military than it has to free a private consultant.  Even if he is older, a highly-regarded professional in his field, who is not suspected of desertion, but was abducted by armed gunmen who pistol-whipped him in his home and tied up his guards.  Every American traveling or living abroad at this very moment should find great comfort in such a position, now that bargaining for the release of American-held terrorists is in this administrations' playbook.

And what of this Bergdahl fiasco, with his hometown cancelling their planned welcome-home festivities because of widespread public backlash against the cost of his release?  Apparently, plenty of townsfolk in Hailey, Idaho, still don't care about how their native son was freed, but they can't afford the police presence necessary to control what would likely be a rowdy protest by out-of-towners over the prisoner exchange.

Even the church denomination with which the Bergdahl family is associated has come out in strong support of the trade.  Describing Bowe as a "covenant son" of the denomination, even though he dabbled with Buddhism and Tarot before joining the military, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) proudly displays a notice on their website heralding his freedom.  The OPC is a small, evangelical, and normally conservative group socially and politically, and a pastor within the denomination who knows the Bergdahls personally admits that he doesn't share all of the family's political views.  Nevertheless, this pastor, the Rev. Phil Proctor of Sterling Presbyterian Church in Virginia, strenuously defends the Bergdahls, and has criticized evangelicals who are speaking publicly against them.

"I personally intend to run as hard as I can in the opposite direction of judging his words in the moment of his crucible," Proctor told a fellow pastor regarding Bowe's outspoken and controversial father.  "I would HATE to have that standard applied to my moments of stress."

But that's just it, isn't it?  When the Bergdahls appeared with the President in the Rose Garden Saturday, the senior Bergdahl, upon approaching the microphone, recited a Muslim prayer of blessing to Allah, "Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim."  While such a blessing is commonly used in the Muslim world in a variety of contexts, it is popularly interpreted as giving praise to the Muslim god, Allah.  And while many people want the Muslim god and the Christian God to be the same thing, they're not.  And for Bergdahl to insinuate otherwise sounds an awful lot like heresy.

It's not the politics of Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim that should be offensive to evangelicals, but the fact that a self-professing Christ-follower chose to use an honorific for a different deity than the God of the Bible.

Proctor says we shouldn't judge a person by what they say in their deepest angst, but how many other pastors tell us just the opposite?  What we say and do - even reflexively - in our darkest moments can serve as a testimony to what is in our hearts.  Meanwhile, Bergdahl's father never thanks the holy God of the universe when he lists the people he wanted to credit for his son's freedom.  And he spoke the Muslim greeting so fluently, even the President, standing next to him, smiled in appreciation - which in itself has sparked a tempest among some right-wing talking heads.  Yet where was the affection for and honor to the orthodox God of the OPC?

What's been mildly amusing through all of this has been watching the current administration's most ardent supporters stumble all over themselves trying to excuse what even some left-wing Democrats are calling an arrogant blunder by the president.  Salon.com, for example, is trying to parse out the definition of "terrorist" to support their goofy claim that the Taliban in Afghanistan isn't technically a terrorist organization.  Dana Milbank, writing for the Washington Post, thinks it's humorous that conservatives are still unhappy with the President because of his opaqueness over Benghazi, even as he himself reminds his readers of the unanswered questions from that fiasco.  And the Huffington Post found a Republican congressman from Idaho - the Bergdahl's home state, not surprisingly - who is trying to argue that prisoner exchanges aren't unprecedented.  As if Americans who oppose the Bergdahl swap are simply ignorant of history.

Yes, plenty of us are ignorant of history, but when we see bad history being created right in front of us, that doesn't mean we have to agree with it!  This administration has been adamant that it will not negotiate with terrorists.  And virtually all other prisoner exchanges in the past have been negotiated with foreign governments, not rogue bands of anarchists like the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Granted, few of us have the kind of simplistic, categorized, and changeless lives unadulterated by nuance and evolving beliefs that fit into the kind of populist narrative that could make Bowe Bergdahl an unqualified American hero.  But doesn't it seem unusual to have so many red flags waving around his case?  Part of the problem stems from his father's unabashed use of social media to chronicle his edgy advocacy for his son.  But most of it still centers around President Obama's flippant use of executive privilege and the recklessness with which he allowed the Bergdahl trade to go down.  Especially since his administration has been so hard-lined about such negotiations in the past.

On the one hand, for the cause of Christian unity, it would be nice to give the Bergdahls the benefit of our doubt until they can process all of this themselves and resurface after the media's furor has moved on to some other unfortunate topic.

But should we critics of this trade be faulted for being curious about the things that are being done in our name by our elected officials?  After all, wasn't our right of inquiry the type of thing Bowe was fighting for in Afghanistan?

And if it wasn't, we certainly have a right to know what was.


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