Taking hearty refuge in a mawkish phrase, Barack Obama this morning told the world that Sergant Bowe Bergdahl was “somebody’s child.” “I make absolutely no apologies for making sure we get back a young man to his parents,” the president assured journalists in Belgium. “We saw an opportunity and we seized it.”
In and of itself, none of this is objectionable. Nevertheless, it does precisely nothing to answer his critics’ disapprobation. Nobody is asking Obama to “apologize” for having got a young man back to his parents. Bathetic as the reminder might be, it remains the case that every single person in the world is “somebody’s child” — whether they are good or evil, honorable or dishonorable, and enlisted or not. And few voices in the chorus are agitating against seizing opportunities should they arrive. Instead, the questions at hand are whether the president got a good deal and whether he acted within his constitutional and legal authority in making one. They are not whether America should seek to emancipate its prisoners of war. Saccharine appeals to apple pie and motherhood just won’t cut it.
The temptation to paint the White House’s critics as heartless and guileful partisans has proven too much for some to resist. Erecting an Olympic-caliber strawman, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asked disingenuously on Monday whether he was “correct that the American right-wing has spent the day arguing we should have left an American soldier behind.” Here, he was channeling the government’s own false dichotomy, which crudely holds that one is either in favor of each and every deal it cuts or one is guilty of wishing to leave American soldiers behind. This, of course, is fatally inexact. To observe that our soldiers are somebody’s children is no more to adumbrate a military strategy than to repeat that “we don’t leave our men behind” is to inform us what constitutes an acceptable plan for their recovery. Indeed, if all that matters here is the principle, one has to ask why the administration did not make a deal back in 2011 — or, for that matter, why it did not merely accept the Taliban’s initial offer? Is it only recently that the policy of the United States has been to bring all prisoners home? Or was it that, prior to this month, the details were not satisfactory?
I have no illusions as to my shortcoming as a foreign-policy thinker, nor do I pretend to know all of the details of this episode. I do not know what the protocol is in this area. I do not know how this accord relates to those that have been historically resolved. I don’t know, either, how practically dangerous the five prisoners we released are. All told, it is eminently possible that the Obama administration has got this one perfectly correct. What I do know, however, is that there are always costs on the other side of the ledger — substantial prices that the United States would not have paid — and that to pretend otherwise is folly. Would we have exchanged 100 prisoners? Would we have handed over a trillion dollars? How about giving our foes one of our aircraft carriers?
The reaction to the deal has been mixed, by no means breaking along clear and partisan lines. Charles Krauthammer — no friend of Obama’s he — suggested yesterday that had he been in the president’s position, he would “have made the same choice.” But, Krauthammer went on to note, “It’s a difficult decision, and I would not attack those who would have done otherwise.” As it happens, “those who would have done otherwise” appear to include MSNBC’s firebrand, Chris Matthews, who declared on Hardball on Wednesday that this was “a nasty deal, one driven by our enemies.” “To say this trade is messy,” Matthews continued, “is an understatement, which sadly does not mean it wasn’t the only deal there was.” Are we to glean from this assessment that Matthews believes that the United States should leave its soldiers behind? Or, perhaps, that he does not consider Bowe Bergdahl to be “somebody’s child”? One suspects not.
Demonstrating simultaneously a genius for politics and a penchant for adroit dishonesty, Senator Harry Reid tweeted earlier this week that, in America, “we rescue our soldiers first and ask questions later.” “If action by justice system is needed,” Reid averred, “I prefer American justice over Taliban justice.” Who among us does not? Again, though, this principle tells us little about the merits of this particular exchange, nor does it render immaterial the details of Bergdahl’s service. Indignantly as it might insist that a soldier is a soldier whatever his conduct while deployed, the White House clearly believed Bergdahl’s character to be important at least to its public case. For what other reason did it send out Susan Rice to describe the rescuee as having “served the United States with honor and distinction”? If it doesn’t matter, why are the president’s aides preposterously accusing the many critical members of his platoon of being swift-boaters? And why are straight-down-the-middle reporters like Jake Tapper being transmuted into right-wing conspiracists for asking questions about his past? Why did the president host Bergdahl’s parents in the initial press conference?
It may well be that the administration has got the details right — that the trade itself was a fair one, that Article II of the Constitution confers upon the executive branch the authorities that this president claims, and that treating troubled American warriors as being less deserving of rescue is a dangerous and ignominious game. Its reaction to scrutiny, however, has been little short of disastrous, not least because it has revealed once again that a man who was sold to us as the “no drama” option is disquietingly hostile toward transparency and that his enthusiasts will tolerate neither animadversion nor inquiry. Well before Barack Obama took his first steps into the U.S. Senate, another president gave a bewildering hostage to fortune, boldly declaring “Mission Accomplished” before the facts had had time to jostle into place. He learned, as his successor is learning, that there is a place for triumphalism and a place for modesty, and that facile exultance is no match for the complexities of guerilla war.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.