Looking back at Obama’s West Point speech helps one comprehend the otherwise incomprehensible Bergdahl-Taliban imbroglio. You can see his mind, such as it is, at work. He is too clever by half, too convinced of his own brilliance and righteousness, and possessed of some acute blind spots, particularly regarding the military, and especially those serving in the ranks whom he does not have any experience with whatsoever.
In the speech, Obama effectively declared victory in Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda “leadership” had been decimated. The Afghan security forces were able to step up. The Taliban were not even mentioned.
So time to declare victory and end the war and go home. And one of the signifiers of the end of a war is the exchange of POWs. Hence, the negotiation of a trade of Bergdahl for five Taliban hardliners. (“Dead-enders”, as Rumsfeld would have called them.) Moreover, once five really bad actors are released from Gitmo, what is the basis for keeping the rest? Thus, the next stage would have been additional releases.
But then things spun out of Obama’s control, and the contradictions in the policy, its ham-fisted implementation, and inane justifications exploded into view-and in Obama’s face.
First there was the strong skepticism about the prudence-or sanity-of releasing Taliban hardliners. Then there was Bergdahl himself, and Bergdahl’s father. Because of Obama’s blindspot about the military-one shared by most of his administration-he did not expect the furious reaction from the ranks, especially from those who had served with Bergdahl or served in the same area at the same time and therefore bore the brunt of the fallout from his apparent desertion. No doubt the perfumed Pentagon princes assured Obama that everyone would be pleased to have a comrade come home. But this was to misjudge the widespread belief in the ranks that Bergdahl had broken the code with his comrades, and that soldiers died as a result.
This was compounded by Obama’s very public-and literal-embrace of Bergdahl’s father, an avowed Taliban supporter who has called on God to avenge the deaths of Afghan children. Deaths he clearly blames on the US, not on the Taliban. Meaning that avenging the deaths of Afghan children would involve the deaths of US servicemen and women.
Blindsided by the furious onslaught, the administration responded in typical fashion. It trotted out Susan “Say Anything” Rice to claim that Bergdahl had been “captured on the field of battle” (almost certainly false) and had served with “honor” (again, almost certainly false). When this just re-vectored the blowback onto Rice’s sorry backside, Jay Carney interrupted his way out the door to support her, claiming that Bergdahl did serve with distinction because he had volunteered and put on the uniform.
Um, Jay, that may be a necessary condition for honorable service, but it isn’t a sufficient one. Indeed, if just putting on the uniform is all that matters, why are there distinctions made when one takes it off? Most are discharged honorably, but some depart the service with dishonorable or less-than-honorable discharges. Implying that one’s conduct while in uniform matters. Some people dishonor the uniform through their conduct while in service. The issue here is whether Bergdahl did that.
But perhaps Jay Carney isn’t aware of the concept of dishonorable discharges. Though he should be. John Kerry’s discharge status was an issue in 2004.
Which brings us to the next administration response: slime the soldiers who have accused Bergdahl of desertion in the face of the enemy. Yesterday it was reported that people in the administration were accusing these veterans of “Swift Boating” Bergdahl. A lot of fire is being delivered in the direction of these guys. You see, Bergdahl is honorable. They stayed and fought, but they are psychos (as one Obama administration staffer put it). How lovely.
But we’re not done yet. There is also the issue of the process and the timeline of the deal with the Taliban. The administration claimed that it had to act in haste, without giving Congress the legally-mandated 30 days notice of the release of Gitmo detainees, because of its grave concern about Bergdahl’s physical and mental condition. But these concerns were allegedly based on a video taken in December and received, via the Qataris, in January. The five month lag belies any serious alarm about the imminence of Bergdahl’s medical peril.
Belatedly the administration allowed several Senators to view the tape, to mixed reviews. Some, like the awful Dick (and I do mean Dick) Durbin toed the administration line. Others were less impressed. And not all of the unimpressed were Republicans. Manchin and Feinstein did not see evidence of imminent danger.
The health justification is especially dubious given the fact that this deal has been in the works for years. Years. At least since 2011. Moreover, there are indications that the motivation for the deal had a large political component:
President Obama [has] announced that the United States will now pursue “a negotiated peace” with the Taliban. That peace is likely to include a prisoner swap – or a “confidence-building measure,” as U.S. officials working on the negotiations call it – that could finally end the longest war in America’s history. Bowe is the one prisoner the Taliban have to trade. “It could be a huge win if Obama could bring him home,” says a senior administration official familiar with the negotiations. “Especially in an election year, if it’s handled properly.”
I would bet you dimes to donuts that the “senior administration official” is Susan Rice, especially in light of her history of viewing geopolitical issues through a domestic political filter:
At an interagency teleconference in late April, Susan Rice, a rising star on the NSC who worked under Richard Clarke, stunned a few of the officials present when she asked, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” Lieutenant Colonel Tony Marley remembers the incredulity of his colleagues at the State Department. “We could believe that people would wonder that,” he says, “but not that they would actually voice it.” Rice does not recall the incident but concedes, “If I said it, it was completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant.”
Previous attempts to do the deal had been derailed by serious people, like Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, and yes, Hillary. People who take national security seriously. Obama has succeeded in getting rid of serious people, replacing Panetta with the pathetic Chuck Hagel, for example. What’s more, he deliberately set up the process to review the deal to exclude any possibility of a veto this time. The military was expected to “suck it up and salute.” Which the perfumed princes apparently did, whereas the rank and file did not.
In sum, Obama had been trying to close the deal that was done last week for years, as part of a broader diplomatic and political agenda. He had been stymied by fierce opposition within his own administration. He short circuited that opposition through key appointments (Hagel, Rice) and the creation of an ad hoc process that gave no opportunity for serious opposition to assert itself. Thus, the “health concerns” justification is completely at odds with the history of this situation: it is an ex post defense of a policy that Obama can’t defend on its merits.
Obama is clearly desperate-desperate-for a deal. No doubt as a part of his ongoing Legacy Project. How desperate? This desperate:
Clinching it was a phone call Obama made two days later, on May 27, with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who said Qatari officials had agreed to measures to prevent at least an immediate return to the battlefield of the five Taliban prisoners, the officials said.
“Prevent at least an immediate return.” These guys have to go on time out for a while, to have a somewhat decent interval before returning to the fight. And even then, Obama admits that it’s “absolutely” possible these guys will kill again.
We’ve seen this movie before. You give Obama a fig leaf, and he will grab it and give you everything you want. (The Syrian chemical weapons deal is the classic example of that.)
For their part, once the deal was done, the Taliban punked Obama by releasing a video of the handover, along with much more extensive coverage of the joyous reception given the five released terrorists in Qatar.
And speaking of Qatar, which obviously played a huge role in all this, that could be the worst part of this sorry episode. Again in his desperation to deal, Obama has gone all in with the Qataris, who are truly malign actors whose interests are definitely not aligned with the US. Qatar has deep ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and was pushing its efforts in Egypt. Qatar is engaged in a struggle with Saudi Arabia to exert influence, and even achieve dominance, throughout the Middle East. Farming out key roles to these people is a dangerous game. (Interestingly, Obama met with the former emir of Qatar at West Point.)
So Obama has some serious explaining to do to justify this fiasco. So far his explanations have done worse than fallen flat: they’ve unleashed a firestorm of criticism. So you know what will happen: dismissing this as a manufactured DC controversy (which has already happened), attacks on the messenger (already well underway), and spin, spin, spin. Indeed, many of the media dervishes are whirling away as we sit here.
On the surface, this may look reckless. But one theory gaining traction among senior officials and policy analysts around Asia and in Washington is that the timing is well calculated. It reflects Mr. Xi’s belief that he is dealing with a weak U.S. president who won’t push back, despite his strong rhetorical support for Asian allies.
Mr. Xi’s perception, say these analysts, has been heightened by U.S. President Barack Obama’s failures to intervene militarily in Syria and Ukraine. And it’s led him to conclude that he has a window of opportunity to aggressively assert China’s territorial claims around the region.
I’ve often said that I hope Bismarck (“There is a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the USA”) and Adam Smith (“there is a lot of ruin in a nation”) are right. Obama is putting both aphorisms to the test.