Amid jubilation Saturday over the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity by the Taliban, senior Republicans on Capitol Hill said they were troubled by the means by which it was accomplished, which was a deal to release five Afghan detainees from the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Top Republicans on the Senate and House armed services committees went so far as to accuse President Obama of having broken the law, which requires the administration to notify Congress before any transfers from Guantanamo are carried out.
The reaction to the release of five high-level Taliban has not-unexpectedly set off a reaction on the right ranging from controlled concern about what arrangements if any will be made and carried out in Qatar to ensure the terrorists don’t return to Afghanistan to, at the other extreme, to ferocious outrage. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) put out a statement Sundays that was tempered, saying, “I fear that the administration’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban for Sergeant Bergdahl’s release could encourage future terrorist kidnappings of Americans.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) unloaded on the White House: “I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners or engage in any activities that can threaten the prospects for peace and security in Afghanistan.” On Face the Nation he expressed outrage that those responsible for “thousands if deaths” should be freed.
National security adviser Susan Rice, dispatched once again over the administration’s handling of another foreign policy hot potato, insisted this was “a very special situation”:
Sergeant Bergdahl wasn’t simply a hostage, he was an American prisoner of war, captured on the battlefield. We have a sacred obligation that we have upheld since the founding of our Republic to do our utmost to bring back our men and women who were taken in battle. And we did that in this instance.
If for some reason we took a position now in the 21st Century when some of our adversaries may not be traditional state actors that we would not do our utmost to bring our prisoners of war home, that would break faith with the American people and with the men and women who serve in uniform.
This is entirely disingenuous. The terms if any prisoner exchange need to be weighed in order to determine whether the trade is in our national security interest. Given the identity of the terrorists, many will argue it certainly was not. Moreover, Rice has it backwards; because our enemies are not state actors and do not abide by the rules that govern civilized nations, we can only expect they will continue to grab Americans in order to pressure a weak administration to give up its most dangerous prisoners. Their trustworthiness in agreeing to abide by any exchange terms is nil. They are and remain terrorists with whom prisoner exchanges are simply a recipe for future kidnappings and violence.
There are a few key points to keep an eye on. First, to the extent the president “broke the law” in failing to notify Congress, lawmakers once again see behavior that far surpasses the Bush administration when it comes to executive power grabs and disregard of a co-equal branch. It is ironic that Rice now quotes the executive’s constitutional authority to act unilaterally, a position the left vehemently objected to in the Bush administration. That said, in this case the GOP would do well to focus on the substance rather than the separation of powers issue, which to average voters sounds like carping about process.
Second, this is just the beginning of what we can expect from a president who thinks he is “ending” a war. Because we leave one battlefield in the war against jihadist terror, he apparently discards any concerns that these terrorists will strike there or elsewhere. This is the logical extension of a mind-set that we are at war in specific places against certain groups, rather than accepting that this is an unconventional war against those ascribing to an ideology that is not limited by borders. The retrenchment crowd on the right and the left who mock the idea that the world is our “battlefield” should think through their own mind-set; it inevitably leaves us with the prospect of ending detention of combatants and eliminating our anti-terror surveillance programs.
And finally, the president’s actions are likely to shift opinion among conservatives (and maybe among centrist Democrats) to an even more unified, anti-Obama stance on matters of national security. Seeing where a passive and weak commander in chief leads us — freeing terrorists, failing to back up our actions with words, and allowing bad actors to run wild — the backlash on the right is likely to push Republicans into a more hawkish stance. Does anyone really want to be the Obama-lite candidate on the GOP side? Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a good barometer of right-wing opinion, blasted the trade as simply giving terrorists “an incentive to capture more soldiers.” He then went on to report from his overseas trip that allies are expressing “over and over again [that American] leadership is missing.”
UPDATE: Outrage over the prisoner swap has also intensified due to the specifics of Bergdahl’s capture and eventual release. The Post reports: “Bergdahl, 28, is believed to have slipped away from his platoon’s small outpost in Afghanistan’s Paktika province on June 30, 2009, after growing disillusioned with the U.S. military’s war effort. . . . At the time, an entire U.S. military division and thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers devoted weeks to searching for him, and some soldiers resented risking their lives for someone they considered a deserter.” While national security adviser Susan Rice cheered his release as a joyous event, our troops feel differently. (“U.S. troops said they were aware of the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance — that he left the base of his own volition — and with that awareness, many grew angry. ‘The unit completely changed its operational posture because of something that was selfish, not because a solider was captured in combat,’ said one U.S. soldier formerly based in eastern Afghanistan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the search. ‘There were military assets required . . . but the problem came of his own accord.’”) If it’s true, as one account in social media asserted, that “the deaths and woundings of several U.S. soldiers” resulted from the search and the “frequency of enemy ambushes and improvised explosive devices increased after he was gone,” the swap becomes all the more inexplicable. No wonder the administration left Congress out of the loop.