Editorial: Obama’s Bergdahl problem
What is the life of an American prisoner of war worth?
Is it worth more if he fought heroically in previous battles? Is it worth less if he is a coward? A deserter?
There are multiple launch points for the debate over whether President Obama acted appropriately when he exchanged five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who before his release was the only American prisoner of war.
There is, of course, the troubling matter of congressional approval. The law requires the president to give Congress 30 days notice when a prisoner is going to be moved from Guantanamo. During a news conference in Poland on Tuesday, Obama said it wasn’t practical to wait – the stakes were too high.
“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is: We don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” he told reporters.
Second, there is the question of unleashing five terrorists on the world in order to save one soldier. Obama had an answer for that as well.
“Is there a possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely,” he said. “That’s been true of all the prisoners who have been released from Guantanamo. There is a certain recidivism that takes place. I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it would be contrary to American national security.”
And that leads to perhaps the most important point of debate. Strictly from a national security standpoint, did Obama make a wise move?
The answer is, of course, he didn’t. From a military perspective, this was nothing close to a win-win. That’s the cold, hard, inescapable fact. The longer Bergdahl remained in captivity, the more likely it became that he would be the face of a war-weary nation that no longer knows what it is fighting for. To believe the Taliban didn’t understand that is naïve in the extreme. The enemy wasn’t just holding all the cards, they had the key to the factory where the cards are made.
Obama was also wrong about America never leaving our men or women in uniform behind.
We have left them behind in waiting lines for medical care. We have left them behind on housing and jobs. It’s true that many of their fellow Americans never forget the sacrifices they made, and they do so on personal memorial days too numerous to count, but the politician’s America is more about the hero narrative than flesh and blood. And God help the soldier who doesn’t fit that narrative.
The bottom line is that President Obama set five Taliban prisoners free for one reason and one reason only: Last week there was exactly one living American prisoner of war, and his name was Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho. Now Bergdahl is a free man headed home to a country divided over whether he deserves the life he has just regained. The war in Afghanistan is winding down, and this is what passes for closure.
So what is the life of a prisoner of war worth? The answer is different for everybody and can’t be otherwise. But while the debate for many will be philosophical, Obama must answer to history and precedent, and he will do so with very little in the way of the traditional war narrative to stir the American heart. After all, Sgt. Bergdahl is no hero. He’s just a man.