President Barack Obama marked the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with a Rose Garden event with the captive soldier’s parents and triumphant assurances that “the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”
When wars aren’t won or lost, but are only “ended,” it is the prisoner swaps that are the victories to be celebrated. On “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice insisted that it was a “joyous day.” She spoke as if May 31 will forevermore be known as “Bowe Bergdahl Release Day.”
All indications are that Bergdahl, traded for five top-level Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, recklessly endangered himself and his colleagues after walking off his base on June 30, 2009. Then the military appears to have done everything it could to suppress the story of what had happened that day, while expending great effort to get him back.
Continuing her run of saying dubious things about matters of public import on Sunday shows, Rice said over the weekend that Bowe Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction.” The record suggests the opposite. Rice repeatedly said that he was captured “on the battlefield,” although there is no evidence of any battle during which he was captured. By the sound of it, she mistook Sergeant Bergdahl for Sergeant York.
Bergdahl became disillusioned with the war — and with the United States — during his deployment. He wrote of the Afghans in an email to his parents shortly before he went missing, “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid.” He went on to say that “I am ashamed to be an American.”
Afghan vet Nathan Bradley Bethea participated in the search for him. In a powerful piece for The Daily Beast, he writes that “Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.”
Even if you think the trade of five leading Taliban figures who will almost certainly find their way back to the fight was worth it, the swap is still an ignominious end to what appears to be a sad episode that brought unnecessary torment for Bergdahl, pain for his loved ones, and bloodshed for his comrades.
Let Bergdahl’s parents and friends rejoice and his hometown in Idaho welcome him with open arms. But let’s not pretend that his return is some national triumph.
President Obama and his team can’t help themselves, though. They are too desperate for anything they can call a victory, and too invested in the terms of the trade.
For the administration, the releases from Gitmo are less a downside of the deal than another virtue of it. It’s not just that the administration doesn’t want to leave any soldiers on the battlefield; it doesn’t want to leave any detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
“I will continue to push to close Gitmo,” President Obama said in his West Point speech last week, “because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.” Pressed on the Gitmo releases, Susan Rice said Sunday that “the existence of Guantanamo Bay is itself a detriment to our national security.” By this logic, trading terrorists for American captives, so long as those terrorists come from Gitmo, makes us safer.
The Taliban had long sought the release of its top commanders from Gitmo, and the administration perversely considers this another virtue of the swap. A senior American official told the New York Times that the deal shows “each side that the other can deliver.” As if the Taliban need to be assured of our good intentions, and as if the trustworthiness of the United States government is in any way comparable to that of a terrorist insurgency.
It was folly that got Bergdahl captured, and folly that got him back.