The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama feeling the heat from Taliban terrorist trade

The Taliban terrorist trade is beginning to crowd out other scandals. As with the Veterans Affairs fiasco, the outrage is not partisan. Democrats are irate that Congress was not alerted about the prisoner swap while Republicans are beside themselves over the idea of negotiating with and releasing terrorists. Both sides have huge doubts that the trade was in our favor and deep concerns that the deal doesn’t restrict the terrorists’ ability to return to the battlefield. For President Obama, there are fewer excuses because the president can’t claim that he was kept out of the loop. No, this is his doing. Indeed he imagined this would be heralded as a great strategic victory.

Why has it degenerated into a fiasco? (When Chris Matthews and the Wall Street Journal editorial board both slam a decision, you know it really is a fiasco.) Here are four main concerns that threaten to engulf Obama:

1. The White House feels compelled to embellish if not outright deceive the public and media when it gets in hot water. Now the press is beginning to call him on it. National security adviser Susan Rice says Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl served with distinction. The White House says failing to alert Congress was all an oversight. Neither story holds up.

2. The administration would rather mislead than let on the extent of its claim to executive primacy. Former attorney general Michael Mukasey writes:

[The] Obama administration has apologized only for the least of the president’s transgressions in this sorry affair: his failure to consult Congress 30 days in advance of freeing any Guantanamo detainees, as required by the National Defense Authorization Act. At the time the president signed that law he issued an accompanying signing statement taking the position, I believe probably correctly, that the law is unconstitutional as a restriction on his Article II executive powers. However, his own criticism of his predecessor for alleged misuse of executive authority apparently left him diffident about relying on that, so he relied instead on two excuses with neither legal nor factual basis: concern for the rapid deterioration of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s health, which does not explain why no notice was given; and simple neglect due to the rush of events, which contradicts the first.

3. The terrorists’ senior-level association with the Taliban, 9/11 training and relative freedom in Qatar have many convinced that the president doesn’t take the war against jihadism seriously. In this case, perception is reality; the lack of American seriousness encourages jihadis and frightens responsible players.

4. The administration’s spin machine is on the fritz. Obama’s obvious shock that his handiwork is not being lauded as a great triumph tells us that no one in the White House has the critical eye, sound judgment and sway with Obama to stop him from doing dumb things. His own judgment is so out if whack that Americans have begun to feel the president is inattentive or determined to deny reality. The White House is not having much luck in silencing the military and or former officials who are bitterly criticizing the move.

The result is a  nightmare for the president’s reputation, for our bargaining position in talks with the Taliban, for the now petrified Afghan government and people and for the troops and their families who now fear an uptick in kidnapping and who feel betrayed by the commander in chief.

Congress has limited tools at its disposal, but oversight hearings seem to be the place to start. Even with oversight hearings, the bell can’t be unrung, so whatever message of weakness and obliviousness Obama has sent can’t be retracted. No wonder the president’s ratings on foreign policy are sinking like a stone.