Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Heart Over Brain in Bergdahl Trade?

Maybe the problem's that he was the only captured American in Afghanistan.

On Saturday, President Barak Obama announced from the Rose Garden that Bowe Bergdahl had been released by the Taliban in exchange for five accused terrorists being held at Guantanamo Bay.  Bergdahl had been held by the Taliban for five years, allegedly after having deserted his guard post at a military base in Afghanistan.

It's still unclear whether the Taliban actually found him and captured him, or if Bergdahl had wandered into their clutches.  According to some soldiers who were stationed with Bergdahl, along with the text of some electronic communication that has surfaced in the media, the young American had professed a growing disillusionment with the way his country was prosecuting the hunt for terrorists.  He'd witnessed, for example, an Afghan child get run over and crushed by a heavy piece of American machinery, but no corresponding remorse on the part of the military for having done so, nor any investigation as to who was to blame.  It is believed that one night, he simply discarded his gun and ammunition, and walked away into the Afghan night, with a compass and a bottle of water.  The next anybody knew, the Taliban was announcing his "capture."

Bergdahl has been the only American to have been held by the Taliban, our official enemy in Afghanistan.  Back in the States, his father eventually quit his job to concentrate on winning his son's release.  He also grew a beard in a visual attempt at somehow bonding with his son existentially, since in captivity, the American was not being allowed to shave.  The elder Bergdahl even learned two languages spoken by Afghans in the region his son was being held, and he brazenly established an e-mail link with somebody in the Taliban to try and keep tabs on his son's welfare.

On the one hand, we'd expect the parents of any soldier being held "behind enemy lines" to work as hard as they could for their loved one's release.  And in that regard, the Bergdahls were no different.  Bowe's parents traveled to Washington DC multiple times to plead their case on Capitol Hill, and meet with federal bureaucrats regarding methods for pursuing his release.  Bowe's father also began advocating for the highly controversial notion of releasing Gitmo detainees as a goodwill gesture.

In 2011, during secret briefings with legislators, the Obama administration proposed pursuing a prisoner exchange involving Gitmo, but even liberal Democratic senator Diane Feinstein adamantly opposed the idea.

And with good reason!  If the warnings being made by Homeland Security mean anything, setting the kind of precedent President Obama did this past weekend risks jeopardizing the welfare of every American abroad, whether they're a soldier or a civilian.  With the long-delayed resolution of how America should legally process the people we've detained in Cuba still festering as a scar in this administration's impotent foreign policy, the Taliban have a ready supply of personnel at Gitmo with whom it can broker future trades, as long as the Americans it can capture have the resources for advocacy like Bowe Bergdahl had.  And the benefit for the Taliban, even if their new leadership doesn't really need or want these aging former leaders?  The sheer humiliation of their Enemy Numero Uno.

Since none of us knows all of the facts surrounding the obviously sloppy Bergdahl case, it would be tempting to simply wait and see how things continue to unfold, and how the missing pieces of this puzzle continue to click into place.  But is time on our side?  One of the reasons the President defied his own order to provide thirty-days notice before "transferring" any Gitmo prisoner involved his assertion that time was of the essence, and that the Taliban was about to kill their American prize.  Yes, as an armchair observer to this situation, it's hard to see why the Taliban would intentionally eliminate their biggest bargaining chip, and kill Bergdahl - especially after using him to toy with this administration for five long years.  But just as - for whatever reason - Obama feared not dodging around the law put Bergdahl's life in imminent peril, it's the same Taliban he didn't trust that now has five of its senior leadership walking around Qatar.

And then there's the question of whether Bergdahl was a traitor who abandoned his post.  Walking off of guard duty automatically exposes one's fellow soldiers to danger.  After he went missing, at least six Americans died in the military's search for him.  True, we don't know the full story here, and it's admirable for any commander-in-chief to want to bring home all of their troops.  Yet this is the type of soldier the president of the United States considers worthy of something as self-defeating as a prisoner trade?

Even local media outlets in Afghanistan are angry at the President.  After all, their national security had a stake in the Bergdahl case, too.

In his defense, Obama tried to claim historic precedence between his controversial actions and those of presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  But with all due respect to the current commander-in-chief, bartering with terrorists over a prisoner exchange is no trade treaty with England, which was George Washington's first major controversy after the Revolutionary War.  Bartering prisoners is no dilemma like the ones Lincoln faced involving slavery and preserving the Union.  And bartering prisoners is no Yalta Conference, in which Roosevelt participated in dividing Europe's remains like spoils of the Second World War.

Perhaps the reason why Obama was apparently so compelled to act with such disregard for the sovereign security of the United States involves whatever machinations the elder Bergdahl was earnestly deploying for his son's release.  Might having one American prisoner entitle that prisoner's family to greater considerations and progress in our country's halls of power than having dozens or hundreds of Americans being held prisoner?  After all, uniqueness can sometimes distort the reality of the bigger picture.

Yet it's a president's job to not be distracted by exclusivity.

Meanwhile, when the Bergdahls and the President turned to leave their press briefing in the Rose Garden on Saturday, did you see the elder Bergdahl put his arm around Obama?  The gesture appeared to be one of sincerity, not show, and the President did not appear to flinch, as if the gesture was inappropriate for the nature of their relationship.  In other words, the Bergdahls and the President were not simply actors in an international intrigue.  There likely is more that binds them together than has been officially revealed.

Of course, this wouldn't be the first time the heart has overruled the head.

But in times like these, shouldn't it be obvious which one needs to be making the decisions?

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