Thorner & Ingold: Realism applied to Bergdahl’s actions

June 11, 2014


By Nancy Thorner and Edward Ingold – 

President Obama picked a fight last week and things didn’t go well for him. He expected to be attacked by the Republicans, but be rescued by public opinion and the main stream media. He needed to “score points” against his detractors, and divert attention from the growing VA scandal. What happened?

The President negotiated the release of an American soldier, Sgt. (nee Pvt.) Bowe Bergdahl, held by the Taliban in exchange for five senior terrorists, and staged a hero’s welcome for him. In the process, however, he negotiated with a terrorist organization, a violation of Federal law and a tradition going back to Thomas Jefferson (q.v., the shores of Tripoli), and released prisoners from Gitmo against the express wishes of Congress, also a violation of the law. The returning “hero” had, in fact, deserted his platoon in Afghanistan, and actively sought contact with the Taliban.

The event was framed with misleading references to “leave no man behind on the field of battle,” “prisoners of war,” “cessation of hostilities,” and “served with honor and distinction.” The setup was to invite criticism from conservatives (aka Republicans) through egregious actions, then crush the opposition by appealing to a sense of humanity. The event was capped by inviting Sgt. Bergdahl’s parents to speak in the Rose Garden, where his father appeared dressed in Taliban garb and full beard, giving closing remarks praising Allah in Pashto.

The picture was perfect! A humanitarian rescue of an American soldier, held in captivity by a brutal enemy for five years, and returned safely to his adoring parents.

Far too much air time and ink have been spent chasing down questionable leads regarding Bergdahl’s actions during his captivity. There has been speculation that he collaborated with the enemy against his own troops, which is unlikely.  His conversion to Islam and sympathy for his captors may constitute a crime under military law, but may simply be a manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome. This will all come out in the trial (and there must be a trial).

It has been amusing to watch Obama roast in his own juices over the ransom of Bowe Bergdahl.  He had hoped that Republicans would take the lead in attacking the deal, but that didn’t happen. Between Congress, veterans and the major media, the response has been largely apolitical. However the tide may turn if Obama can frame their criticism into an attack on Bergdhal rather than the consequences of his own action, and assign all criticism to the Republicans?

The event contained several hot buttons known to inflame conservatives – negotiation with a terrorist organization, release of high level Gitmo detainees contrary to the wishes of Congress, and portrayal of a suspected deserter as a national hero. The hope was to provoke conservatives into a quick, negative reaction which could be turned against the Republicans by sticking to a carefully planned narrative.

Bergdahl was a “prisoner of war” not an hostage. Urgent action was demanded by the deteriorating state of Bergdahl’s health. When this was proven to be untrue, the narrative changed to the possibility of imminent execution by the Taliban (he was observed training with them using firearms).  The extraordinary negotiations were justified by citing military policy to never leave a fallen comrade behind.

On Fox News, “The Five,” liberal Bob Beckel commented regarding the public spectacle staged staged by the White House over of the release of Bowe Bergdahl, “How could they be so stupid?” He was referring mainly to the Rose Garden affair, and Susan Rice’s statement praising Bergdahl as serving with “honor and distinction.”

The problem for the White House was that Democrats and Republicans alike came out in opposition to the “honor and distinction” story, as well as veterans, his platoon mates, and most of the main stream media.  Democrat U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, further claimed she had received no indications that Bergdahl’s life could be jeopardized if the detainee exchange proceeding were disclosed or derailed before the release from Gitmo of the five detainees.

Negative response was reinforced by the testimony of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers in Afghanistan regarding his conduct leading to his capture by the Taliban. The White House’s attempt to dismiss their testimony by calling them “fast boaters” or psychopaths backfired badly.  This shameful narrative was picked up by the “New York Times” in an editorial on Thursday. Furthermore, the release of five Taliban terrorists is widely seen as an invitation for future kidnapping of military and civilian personnel for ransom.  One of the five Taliban leaders freed from Guantanamo Bay in return for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release has pledged to return to fight Americans in Afghanistan, according to a fellow militant and a relative.

“After arriving in Qatar, Noorullah Noori kept insisting he would go to Afghanistan and fight American forces there,” a Taliban commander told NBC News via telephone from Afghanistan.

Let us now focus on the key points, which are largely undisputed:

Bergdahl walked off base into the hands of the Taliban, which is pretty serious in time of war. Obama chose to ignore this evidence and portray Bergdahl as a returning hero, a slap in the face for his fellow soldiers who did their duty at their constant peril. Obama chose to secure his return by releasing five known terrorists, describing them as prisoners of war rather than war criminals. He did this unilaterally, against the express wishes of Congress and most of his military advisers (past and present). Predictably, Obama and his minions attribute all criticism of his actions as “politics as usual” rather than serious concern over the consequences.

Politics is like a good movie. Nothing, not the smallest detail nor bit of dialogue, is there without a reason. Predictably, the President doubled down on his talking points, and Susan Rice “explained” her earlier comments by denying rather than retracting them, as though they never were uttered.  The New York Times, as would be expected, has resumed carrying the President’s water by stating that “The Republicans” are responsible for attacks on Susan Rice, ignoring the fact that nearly everyone heard her in disbelief.  Best of all, nobody has talked about the VA scandal (Benghazi, IRS, etc) for an entire week.

The furor over trading terrorist prisoners for the return of Bowe Bergdahl did not blindside the President. It was clearly planned. Obama knew his political enemies would seize on the nefarious means whereby the deal was struck with the Taliban, and hoped to turn it on his critics out of sympathy for the rescued soldier. In the process, the story would dominate headlines while the VA crisis and other scandals go unnoticed. He wasn’t disappointed over reaction from the right, but negative reaction from both parties in Congress and over half of the public were a surprise. Obama may still win political points.

Obama has continued to recite the White House Talking Points – that Bergdahl was a valiant soldier who was captured when he fell behind during a patrol, and that it is the long-standing policy that no “brother” will be left behind, regardless of the cost. You will see these same words uttered by everyone tied to the White House, almost without variation. That’s how it works – a lie repeated eventually becomes truth. Testimony from Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers are being dismissed (since unabashed suppression failed) as similar to the “Swift Boat” attack on Kerry in 2004. Never mind that the “Swift Boat” ads were entirely correct. To date, six of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers describe how he packed a picnic lunch, left his armor and weapons behind, and walked off in the middle of the night. It was not the first time he had done so, according to these men.

Leaving no one behind is always a qualified doctrine. Soldiers will make every effort to recover their comrades wounded, killed or separated in action, but not if it unduly endangers the mission or others in the team. The cost in lives and to some extent, treasure, is always a consideration. They will chase “rabbits” too, but for different reasons with decidedly different consequences. It appears that Bergdahl was a rabbit.

The real malefactor in these events is the President himself. Bergdahl is merely a pawn in the political arena. Attacking Bergdahl will simply make him an object of sympathy, and depict his detractors as heartless, which was Obama’s intent all along.



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