This Administration has been accused of failing to understand both the world in general and politics as they are rather than how it wishes them to be. This accusation emerged early in President Obama’s first term as he tried to find common ground on healthcare with an opposition that preferred to stay in the trenches. And more recently, we have watched the Administration trip over a red line in Syria and abhor Russia’s behaving “in 19th century fashion,” as if everyone had agreed upon a set of rules.
Once again, we are watching this terminal misconception interact with the hard realities of national security politics as the Capitol Building implodes over the recovery of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and President Obama and his team watch with confusion from the parapets of the White House. If the Benghazi scandal didn’t finally teach President Obama that politics is a contact sport, one wonders what will.
The Bergdahl swap may have been the biggest unforced error in the history of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. It is the national security equivalent of the Obamacare website – an idea that may have seemed sensible, but suffered from terrible execution.
I am happy that Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is no longer in captivity and will soon be home with his family. He has undergone a long ordeal and deserves time with his parents, who have themselves suffered a drawn-out tribulation. But the performance of President Obama and some of his senior staff, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, once again raises concerns about their judgment in times of crisis. Our president and his key advisers still do not seem to understand that facts will never be assessed calmly and objectively. Narratives need to be nurtured and justified, which requires a feel for timing and a capacity for foresight in deflecting objections. Even now, with questions about the wisdom of the deal continuing to grow in volume, this Administration remains fixated on securing campaign points by releasing information without a thought to how it will be received by multiple audiences.
President Obama decided to release five dangerous men (including at least one war criminal) in exchange for a single American soldier who may have been a deserter. He then shared a podium with and put his arm around Bob Bergdahl, Sergeant Bowe’s father, who has become an anti-American, pro-militant online activist, tweeting, for example: “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, ameen!”
In response to these criticisms, one could argue that the law requiring Congressional approval for the release of any Guantanamo detainees is unconstitutional, that bringing home American soldiers held in captivity is one of our greatest responsibilities, and that a father who has suffered from such prolonged anxiety about his son’s safety should be forgiven (or at least ignored) for his eccentricities. And I would agree with you on all fronts before I told you that it doesn’t matter. That is not the point. This is politics in a media saturated age.
Then Dr. Rice went on television to tell the world that Sergeant Bergdahl served with honor and distinction, an assessment she has stuck by despite fierce backlash from both friends and foes of this White House. The National Security Advisor has qualified her remarks subsequently, clarifying her assessment on the basis of Bergdahl’s volunteering to serve his country, rather than the character of that service.
Yet one has to wonder why the President of the United States put his arm around someone who styles himself a pro-Taliban activist while American and allied men and women in uniform are still being shot and blown up in Afghanistan. One has to wonder why President Obama would say, “this is what happens at the end of wars,” when two ISAF servicemembers were killed by the enemy in the last week and 200 Afghans died at the hands of the Taliban in the last month. These are not the messages our Commander-in-Chief should be conveying to our troops. If they want to honor distinctive service, I would encourage fewer Sunday morning talk shows and more visits to military hospitals.
The class I taught at Johns Hopkins University is over and I’ve submitted my grades, but here is one more. On managing the message for the Bergdahl Swap, the National Security Council team gets an F.
Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest and the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.