Here’s what both the critics and supporters of President Obama’s prisoner swap have in common: They don’t have enough information to justify their positions. And in a world that is awash in gray areas, this is surely one of them.
The facts are even a mess. Did Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl desert his post in Afghanistan five years ago, as many say he did? Did the search for him cost the lives of American servicemen? Did Obama really have no choice but to ignore the law’s demand that he give Congress 30 days’ notice before swapping prisoners?
These are all critical questions that surround Obama’s decision to swap five Taliban detainees in exchange for Bergdahl, who had been captured after leaving his base. But undergirding them is a fundamental American military tradition: We don’t leave our troops behind. With the war in Afghanistan all but concluded, Obama’s critics will have to decide if the president really had no choice but to act and, if so, whether Bergdahl should have been left behind anyway, almost certainly condemning an American serviceman to death, and probably a brutal one.
That’s a bottom line in this tangled story. Even if Bergdahl deserted, and even if that desertion led to the deaths of other servicemen, the conclusion can’t be that he should therefore automatically be left to the mercies of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Bergdahl may need to be called to account for his actions, but if so, he needs to answer to American justice, not the Taliban.
The question is: How far should an American administration go to sustain that tradition? There other questions, too, and Congress is correct to want to investigate this issue, especially since it was left out of the decision to trade prisoners, despite the law’s requirement.
The risk – and it is a severe one – is that any investigation will turn into a congressional clown court, with Obama’s severest critics – Republicans – merely angling for electoral advantage in November’s elections rather than taking a serious look at serious issues.
And the issues are serious. To accomplish this deal, the Obama administration negotiated with terrorists and freed five who could well resume their efforts to kill Americans. Obama wouldn’t be the first president to have negotiated with terrorists, but it is a profoundly uncomfortable idea. Is this something we simply have to get used to in this new kind of warfare? Israel has made its peace with the practice of trading with the enemy to free captured soldiers. What are the rules here?
It appears, too, that Obama at least circumvented the law requiring notification of Congress, if not outright violating it. Again, he wouldn’t be the first; Lincoln is only the most famous president to have taken extra-legal measures in a time of war. Congress should take extreme care in considering that issue.
And, of course, with Bergdahl now free, it is important to ascertain why he left his base, what the consequences of that action were and whether he needs to be prosecuted over those issues.
It could hardly be more convoluted. In the end, a fair congressional inquiry could conclude that Obama acted inappropriately or simply that, faced with an array of bad options, he chose the one that was the least awful.