Jun 03 2014

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Bowe Bergdahl & American Honor

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A Fair Trade?

A Fair Trade?

Hostage situations are like minefields for American presidents; stumbled upon unexpectedly while never ending well.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency effectively ended when Iranian militants stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking hostages that were held for 444 days. The darkest moments of Ronald Reagan’s presidency came when he effectively traded weapons to Iran to secure the release of Americans held by Iranian-backed, Shiite militias in Lebanon.

The requirements of the office, to create a vision for American engagement with the world, including the terms of American involvement with those most hostile to us, almost always come in conflict with the heart-wrenching personal stories of those who have been captured and held against their will; pawns in a much large battle. There is something emotionally  unsound in a president who is entirely unmoved by these stories.

But  hostage situations can be a narcotic for a president. Chief Executives enter office with broad ambitions, only to be ground down by Congress, the regulatory state and the media. But with vast and mostly unrestrained dominion over foreign policy, an American president does have the power to save a single life, even if that myopic focus requires actions that are ultimately detrimental to the nation as a whole.

And so it is with Bowe Bergdahl.

Over the weekend, President Obama got a taste of the enormous satisfaction that comes from directly exercising the powers of the presidency to save an American held hostage.

Bergdahl, an American solider serving in Afghanistan, had been held hostage by the Taliban for five years. While Bergdahl’s case has not generated the same kind of national interest as past hostage situations, Bergdahl’s status as the only US POW in Afghanistan – just as the US prepares to end combat operations at the end of the year – made him important from both a humanitarian and symbolic reasons.

But at what cost to the nation at large? The circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture and the deal that released him raise multiple concerns.

How Was Bergdahl Captured: previous, high-profile hostage deals have one common element; the US party (ies) was abducted in the course of doing their duty and thus, the US government had a moral obligation to attempt to secure their freedom. That is anything but clear in Bergdahl’s case.

While there is no officially agreed upon narrative regarding Bergdahl’s abduction, multiple soldiers who served with Bergdahl claim that he had become disillusioned with the war in Afghanistan and simply walked off base without permission, either making contact with the Taliban or being captured by them.  If correct, that makes Bergdahl Absent Without Leave (AWOL) or at worst, a deserter. This becomes highly significant when considering the lengths that President Obama went to secure Bergdahl’s release, particularly when compared to the cases of other deserters in recent American history (Charles Robert Jenkins) related to North Korea.

Security Risk in Swapping Gitmo Detainees: the cost of securing Bergdahl’s release (and thus “monetizing” the value of his prolonged detention for the world to see) was anything but cheap.

Five, very senior Taliban, captured by US forces at the early stages of the Afghan war in 2001-02 were released in return for Bergdahl. A former Interior Minister, a former Chief of Staff for the Taliban army, a former deputy intelligence director and cell leader who coordinated with terror groups in Afghanistan. As a group, they are radical and murderous, and have direct connections to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. At least two of the detainees were said to have been present at the facility where John Michael Spann, the first American killed in Afghanistan, died. Two others are associated with the mass killings of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan.

Protestations by the Obama administration that these detainees will be “quarantined” in Qatar are window dressing at best. The temporary, geographical hand-cuffs come off in a year, and the men will be free to return to Afghanistan. Historically, of the 600 plus detainees released from Gitmo, over 30 percent have returned to the battlefield to fight the US. What are the ramifications to US security – in 366 days – of releasing such high level terrorists?

Does the Law Mean Anything: President Obama broke the law in cutting the Bergdahl deal. Even the Administration admits it. By law – law – the President must notify Congress within 30 days before releasing detainees from Gitmo. In fact, the Administration did not notify Congress of the transfer until the swap had already taken place.  From the Washington Post:

The law requires the defense secretary to notify relevant congressional committees at least 30 days before making any transfers of prisoners, to explain the reason and to provide assurances that those released would not be in a position to re-engage in activities that could threaten the United States or its interests.

Before the current law was enacted at the end of last year, the conditions were even more stringent. However, the administration and some Democrats had pressed for them to be loosened, in part to give them more flexibility to negotiate for Bergdahl’s release.

A senior administration official, agreeing to speak on the condition of anonymity to explain the timing of the congressional notification, acknowledged that the law was not followed. When he signed the law last year, Obama issued a signing statement contending that the notification requirement was an unconstitutional infringement on his powers as commander in chief and that he therefore could override it,” (emphasis added).

This signing statement is critical.

Currently the Administration is busy obfuscating to anyone who will listen that Bergdahl’s rapidly deteriorating health (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) was the overriding reason that the US needed to act immediately, with no time to make a call to Congress. In fact, POTUS decided what the law would be some time ago, through his signing statement, and acted within what he considered to be his prerogative.

 Remember, it was candidate Obama who decried “signing statements” by George W. Bush as an unconstitutional usurpation of power and the foundation of an “imperial presidency.” Forgetting for a moment the irony and hypocrisy of Obama’s use of signing statements as president, what is relevant here is that none of Bush’s signing statements ever led to something as provocative as the Bergdahl trade.

Obama has been roundly criticized for his seeming contempt for the balance of powers, but we must ponder when these individual acts of transgression create a “red line.” The president does not have the luxury of adhering to the laws as a matter of bias or convenience. Sooner or later, someone must draw a line. There must be a consequence.

But in a sense, the signing statement served a different purpose – it put a constitutional face on a what was a very bad tactical deal. There is little doubt that had the Administration complied with the consultation process in making this trade, that Congress would have loudly vetoed such a lopsided exchange with its minimal protections for future US security and debatable importance to US interests.

Even if Bergdahl had been a battlefield hero – which he was certainly not – this would be a bad trade.

As a matter of policy the deal does signal something about how the Administration sees the future in Afghanistan. Even with 10,000 troops in the country after December, the President clearly sees waning US influence – and a stronger Taliban hand – so much so that it needed to get the deal done before the next president of Afghanistan is formally confirmed and sworn in, and the final draw-down in American troops at the end of the year.

12 years of blood treasure and sacrifice for what? To give back to the enemy its senior command from 2001?

In sum, the Bergdahl deal reeks of weakness. A retreating and exhausted superpower, trading dangerous and high-level terrorists for an AWOL US soldier. That the President would break the law to trade high value detainees for a soldier with Bergdahl’s questionable record has implications for the calculations of future hostage-takers. It also sends the wrong message to the nation and the world on the type of person the US will risk everything for.

Bergdahl is coming home. He and his family are entitled to jubilation after five years of anxiety and uncertainty. Bergdahl himself – judging by press reports – has a long road to travel for rehabilitation. President Obama for all his exertions, gets the sense of power and accomplishment that can only come with the presidency and an immediately achievable goal.

But the family’s joy and relief is neither consolation to nor substitute for resolute American leadership. President Obama spoke at West Point about a diminished America of humbled goals and hobbled means. That occurred against the backdrop of news reports where the Obama Doctrine was frame as “Don’t do Stupid Sh-t.”

Only days later, even with the best of intentions, we now see what that policy looks like in practice.

It leaves one with a heavy heart for our nation.



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