The Obama administration’s now-defunct effort to turn the release of Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl into a cheerable moment was more than just a failure of ethics. It was a failure of communication, and an outrage to the honorable profession of image management and crisis public relations.
Put aside for a moment the very clear disrespect to both active and former service members implicit in trying to manufacture a feel-good narrative out of Bergdahl’s release by the Haqqani terror network in exchange for five high-value Taliban prisoners.
Suppose that there were valid reasons to require non-disclosure agreements from other soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit. Assume that the value of no longer having an American serviceman held captive by Islamists is so great that it’s worth the risk of such an asymmetrical prisoner exchange.
Even if you put these moral concerns aside, it still made no sense for President Obama to hold a Rose Garden event with Bergdahl’s parents Saturday. The White House had every reason to know this story would blow up.
Suspicions about Bergdahl’s disappearance from his unit on the field of honor were not hard to come by. Ralph Peters called him an “apparent deserter” on Fox News shortly after his capture. A detailed and damning narrative of his disappearance was written up in 2012 by Michael Hastings, a Rolling Stone journalist who died in a suspicious car crash in Los Angeles last year.
Even if there had been no such public speculation — if the masses had no inkling of the apparently low opinion soldiers of the the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, had of Bergdahl — the president himself gets regular briefings and had every reason to understand that the question of his behavior and possible culpability would come out. Presumably members of Bergdahl’s company were questioned by superior officers after his disappearance, and records of those interrogations were kept. And presumably the president or some designate was authorized to look at those records.
So why go ahead with the Rose Garden event? Obama had a perfectly legitimate story to tell: The American POW in Afghanistan had to be returned, irrespective of his character, and even at the cost of negotiating with terrorists or violating the law governing notification of Congress. (The Constitution affirms that the president is commander of the armed forces in wartime; and throughout American history presidents have assumed, correctly, that in practice they have essentially infinite wiggle room against any congressional attempts to restrain their power. The congressional notification scandal should have been a twelve-hour story.)
So why bring Robert and Jani Bergdahl in for a photo-op that at best would look a bit strange, given Robert’s grooming and his public attempts to find common ground with his son’s captors? The story of how the Bergdahls ended up at the White House is pure turnip-truck territory. According to Time:
Their presence at the White House on Saturday was the apparent product of coincidence: the couple had visited the capitol for a Memorial Day event and then stayed in town for meetings in Congress. Had they been at home in Idaho when the deal was announced, they likely would not have flown to Washington to appear with Obama—and a key visual element of the drama, replayed endlessly on television, might not have occurred.
Does this happen often, that somebody with business before the president of the United States just happens to be in D.C. and gets invited to swing by the White House? Where did the Bergdahls stay during their D.C. visit, and who paid? How were they vetted before their appearance with the president — both for security and for political sensitivities — and how long did the process take? Did anybody at the White House know Robert Bergdahl was going to say “bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim,” along with the “Pashto phrase” that has been getting so much attention?
I am not damning Robert Bergdahl here; I hope never to find out how I would behave if my child were at the mercy of Muslim psychotics. But I am saying it was bafflingly stupid to have him buddy up with the president for international television coverage.
The conventional wisdom now is that the Bergdahl story was at first viewed as a triumph, until questions began to emerge. This is not exactly true. National Security Adviser Susan Rice was already on the defensive by Sunday morning, when she made her infamous claim that Bergdahl had served with “honor and distinction.” The Rose Garden ceremony was creepy at its heart. Had it not been creepy, there was still a roughly 100 percent probability that people would pay attention to the story.
The shilly-shallying and crabbed vocabulary coming out of the executive branch this workweek (State Department spokesman Marie Harf uncorked “fact pattern” Tuesday) indicate something worse than garden-variety presidential dishonesty. They indicate incompetence.
It is a cardinal rule of image management that you never roll out a story you may have to walk back. In this respect, strict and well-supported factual accuracy is even more important to a flack than it is to a journalist. A reporter who gets something wrong can generally make post-facto corrections without much fuss. But if you’re trying to make a client look good (or just less-bad), even minor inaccuracies are poisonous.
In this case, the weaknesses in the official story would have been clear to one of Kim Jong-un’s staffers. How much contempt must the president have for the voters if he can’t come out and say: Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has been freed in exchange for the release of five Guantanamo detainees. We thank the royal family of Qatar for helping negotiate the exchange. Sergeant Bergdahl, the last POW of the Afghan war, remains on active status and is being well treated?
What was served by the Rose Garden show? What was the teachable moment?