Grading the White House on Bergdahl

June 10, 2014

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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.

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14 thoughts on “Grading the White House on Bergdahl

  1. Bowe’s fellow soldiers have stated he was looking for the Taliban after he deserted which makes Bowe a possible traitor not just a deserter. From what was quoted here about Bowe’s father that seems even more possible. Obama believes he can tell the American people anything and they will believe it. He is wrong. Facts matter. Just like it does matter whether Al Qaeda killed our Ambassador or just some man on the street or whatever pathetic example Clinton used. Americans are not going to go along with Banana Republic style propaganda. Bowe’s fellow soldiers and the loyal patriots on the ground in Benghazi will be believed far more than any politician even this one.

  2. I think your description of this whole debacle as an unforced error doesn’t quite go far enough. It implies one mistake at one time, when it appears that Team Obama must have made multiple mistakes and oversights over the entire period this deal was being negotiated.

    I really don’t understand how such a series of mistakes could be made. Do you think it was a case of the administration putting on blinders and only seeing the political opportunity in freeing an American soldier? If Bowe was a soldier who served with distinction, and the same deal was made for his release, would you still find it objectionable? From our position it’s impossible to know the veracity of the medical imperative for Bowe’s rescue, as offered by the Administration, but Rice et al certainly have certainly done nothing to make it look anything less than suspect.

    In theory, I support the concept of rescuing an American in exchange for five Taliban enemy combatants. The reality of this specific situation, further convoluted by the Obama administration is much murkier. All I can say is that we probably don’t know the full story yet. For example, multiple congressional officials have said that the Taliban threatened to kill Bowe if news of the deal was leaked (hence not telling Congress). And remember that in this midterm political season, motivations should be questioned on both sides: at least one of Bowe’s platoon critics is being “handled” by a Republican PR firm.

    A noble cause or not, I couldn’t agree more that after six years this Administration remains unmoored from geopolitical realities, practically flaunting its naïveté on the world stage.

  3. It is at the inane reference, with its ab-lib like inclusion, that the reader should become aware that to read further is to waste his or her time. I don’t quite have the patience to go line by line from there but lets look at some notable sentences.

    “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.”

    Yes. Your point Mr. Evans? The word “single” here does the lifting that Mr. Evans is not brave enough to do explicitly.

    ” …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!””

    The wise reader, after clicking on the linked WaPo article, would quickly realize that “anti-American, pro-militant” is a disgusting smear against a man put in an impossible situation.

    “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.”

    Read that paragraph again. Done? Did you see it? “An assessment she has stuck by”. “Has qualified her remarks subsequently, clarifying her assessment”. These two sentences are back to back! Dios mio.

    “If they want to honor distinctive service, I would encourage fewer Sunday morning talk shows and more visits to military hospitals.”

    Like I said, a waste of the reader’s time.

  4. I myself am clueless about the Bergdahl uproar. It seems that everyone (Republicans most of all) are conflating three entirely separate issues.

    The first issue is about does the US ever leave one of its own behind? I believe most of us would agree that the answer is an unqualified no.

    The second issue is about releasing one verified terrorist and four captives who have spent the last decade at Gitmo, in exchange for an American prisoner. I would say that the exchange is warranted, but certainly can be valid counter arguments made. The prisoners at Gitmo have been held without a trial for a decade or more. It may be just me, but I find such treatment inhumane. They are just a drop in the bucket of worldwide terrorists the US has to deal with.

    The third issue is the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban. Did he desert? That sounds like an issue that should be decided by a military court Stateside. I have absolutely no problem with that. Better that he be tried by the military than die in a cage, a captive of the Taliban.

    Obama was certainly in a difficult place. I believe he made the correct decision. But politics is a contact sport. The hoopla over Benghazi certainly showed that. Somehow conservatives remain remain unmoved by the most egregious foreign policy error in US history; the complete stupid injustice of the decision to invade Iraq. It killed tens of thousands of people, cost the US well in excess of $1T, destabilized the entire region, and was, in retrospect entirely without merit.

    1. “Noreastern”, I know you don’t realize it, but I’m going to try and point it out to you anyways, in the hopes that there really can be common ground on these types of core issues. Closing the rift between a sizable portion of the public and the military professionals that serve them is that important to me.

      You wade into a thoughtful, non-partisan discussion about the way the return of Private Bergdahl was handled by the current administration with the intent of assuring the forum that we’re all just conflating the issue. To you, demonstrably, Mr. Evans is apparently just some party political activist that you must quickly vanquish. What you don’t realize is that you have completely illustrated the type of thinking that Mr. Evans is discussing here. Your reasoning frame is exactly why the President’s team (apparently ‘your side’) failed so completely (caveat: if it was unintentional, that is. That remains to be seen as well – a point Mr. Evans also makes): your inability to critically examine your own point of view for bias. Lacking this characteristic, you make erroneous decisions, and create fiction in order to justify your intent.

      Ms. Rice’s was the infamous “Served with distinction”. To pluck out just one example of yours from your three paragraph assertion: “Obama was certainly in a difficult place”.

      You state it as a fact, as a given, when a quick accounting of the information that *you have at your disposal* is that that is simply not true.
      “Certainly” ? Certainly. Listen to yourself. Both the assertion (demonstrably false) and the implication (that the situation just happened to the President, and he had to make a quick decision) of the word are in this case, fiction. Yet your whole argument is built on it.

      The fix is simple. Start with being honest. Start with something like: “As a Democrat, and a staunch supporter of the President, I am confused and dismayed at the administration’s handling of this whole affair. Confused because it makes no sense to politicize a clearly defensible issue as the return of one of our Soldiers, and dismayed because of how his horrific handling of this whole situation leaves democrats vulnerable to criticisms of evil Republicans”.

      Something like that. You’ll be taken a lot more seriously, and, you’ll be much more likely to think something actually useful to a given topic.

      In respectful opposition to all you stand for, you broken, ill-mannered fraud,

  5. Again an apologist for the administration. Absolutely the invasion of Iraq was the wrong decision and Bush made horrific mistakes, but this had little to do with the disaster which is the Obama administration. We are weakened because of this President. He is no leader. We can only hope to survive without catastrophe until he is gone.

  6. Watching this whole incident unfold has really been eye-opening in a lot of ways. The professional in me fundamentally disagrees with releasing the five Taliban prisoners from GITMO – essentially removing any possibility that further intelligence might be extracted from them and almost guaranteeing that they will return to the fight in Afghanistan, possibly with a renewed resolve to kill American soldiers or just to do even more damage to our already capsized mission. If even one American soldier or citizen dies because of the prisoner release, can we honestly look at what happened here and say it was the right decision? Really, if the released prisoners negatively influence the Afghan mission in any way – and every soldier takes an oath to always place the mission first – then was it the right decision?

    There is another side to this though, and it is captured with perfect simplicity by a statement that was first uttered by the president and has been repeated in various political and media circles: “this is how wars end.” Watching the Taliban video of Bergdahl’s release, I couldn’t help but feel pangs of embarrassment and humiliation for the soldiers who were ordered to perform the exchange (sloppily and fearfully, though with good reason). The video was the proverbial kick to the ass out the door after you’ve gotten your ass beat in a bar fight. It is yet another instance where President Obama has demonstrated how deeply tone-deaf he is toward military attitudes and values, and it is yet another instance where this White House has shown that it is nowhere near above using the military for political plays when it constantly heaps criticism on its opponents for doing the exact same thing.

    But no, what really irks me about all this is that it is yet another black eye for the military. Yet again, the American military has failed – but hey, here’s one last reminder of how badly we’ve messed things up. It is the perfect cherry on top of the decade plus of muddled wars we have convinced ourselves are over, in what will likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy as we shelve readiness and manning in favor of keeping open the Akron factory that has contracts for the military’s portable latrines.

    So yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is how wars end. Swallow your bitter pill and finish off the last slice of humble pie. Prepare yourselves for the hand-wringing and the soul-searching. Write your books and doctrine and then throw them out.

  7. The “Graveyard of Empires” (Afghanistan) has done it again–this time to the US. From the humanitarian side there is no question Bergdahl had to be swapped. Naturally the cost would be high. However, if this is such a “Dream Team” we gave up I wonder how they ever got caught.

    Just because his father looks like a Boston Red Sox or has a Civil War beard there is no reason to Swift Boat the family.

    I would bet the farm we will find out this is a very troubled young guy who was rescued and he should never have been in the Army in the first place. Certainly after they knew he was dismissed from the Coast Guard for psychological reasons.

    1. Jim,
      Well, dropping the “noreastern” makes you seem a little less ridiculous, but then you start constructing arguments. 3 things to address:

      “Graveyard of Empires”? I notice that you add the parenthetical so that people know you aren’t talking about the city of Chicago. American Citizens killed there, 2001-current: 6,870 – Afghanistan? 1,742. So, that’s nonsensical, right off the bat.

      “Dream Team”, “Swift Boat”??? I don’t… What are you talking about? This name of this section is “Responses”. The implication is that you would *respond* to the author’s argument.

      Finally – Characterizing Private Bergdahl’s negotiated release as “rescued” is also nonsensical.

      Please either post a response to the actual article, or ask WOTR to publish one of your own.

      Slight Regard,

  8. In trying to stay out of the “politics” of this. I view this young man a simple casualty of war proving once again that war is hell. According to his friends in Idaho he was the last person the Army should have let join. Especially since the Recruiter (who wanted his quota and bonus) knew he had been discharged from the Coast Guard for psychological reasons.

  9. I still don’t understand the reason for rushing to seal the deal and bypassing Congress. The pressure was on the Taliban. A dead Bergdahl would be useless to the Taliban. Why didn’t we offer up one Taliban commander, and maybe sweeten the deal to two or three? We should have been in the driver’s seat in that deal. The Taliban surely knew that if Bergdahl had died in captivity, they would have gotten NOTHING. We had the winning hand – and yet we got fleeced.

  10. Initially, I agreed with Mr. Evan’s assessment
    of the Bergdahl debacle . As I read the various responses to Mr. Evans article, I thought many of the criticisms were fair but at the end of the day I could not even give the Obama Administration a “gentleman’s C”. Now I find some of the criticisms silly for example, some have made the prisoner exchange sound like a baseball trade (are there any players to be named later ?). Nevertheless, what I find most troubling is not just this particular incident but our overall National Security policy. There is an air of unreality about the way the Obama Administration conducts America’s role in the world. The thinking seems to be that we can focus on domestic affairs, the mid-term elections, etc., and the rest of the world will simply stand still. But the world does not work that way and history has shown time and again that it does not. I have been a strong supporter of the President but to paraphrase the British Historian Maurice Cowling, “This Government has conducted its affairs in so innocent a fashion as to make a day of reckoning inevitable”.

  11. The unqualified calibre of the US National Security Council and White Hou staff are frightening! We need to recruit some experienced “folks”
    to take control.