President Obama complained yesterday that Sergeant Bergdahl is “not a political football.” That should be true, but unfortunately President Obama is responsible for kicking off the football game by announcing the Taliban-Bergdahl swap in a Rose Garden appearance, rather than leaving the announcement to Secretary Hagel and Chairman Dempsey. The White House should not be surprised now that Republicans have been equally political in their response.
Obama’s Bergdahl announcement reflects a consistently counterproductive pattern by the Administration of politicizing both the opening and closure of Guantanamo, an issue I have written about periodically here at Lawfare. For example, the White House insisted on having the White House press secretary announce the return of two Algerian detainees in July 2013, rather than leaving it the Department of Defense. I said at the time that “The White House should stop politicizing Guantanamo (as should Congressional Republicans) and should instead reach out to Republicans to help solve this vexing national security problem.” And in his NDU speech last year, the President could not resist taking a shot at his predecessor by claiming that Guantanamo was “a facility that should never have been opened.” I responded that:
If President Obama wants to close Guantanamo, or reduce the number of individuals held there, he will need bipartisan political support, and trying to pin blame on others is not a productive way to get them to help him solve the problem. President Obama and Administration officials would do better to acknowledge that the detention of terror suspects captured immediately after 9-11 has been a difficult dilemma for two Administrations and that there were no easy answers then, and there are no easy answers now.
I have been one of the few Bush Administration officials to defend the Bergdahl swap, calling the trade a “defensible, hold-your-nose” decision. I still think that’s true, although it is appropriate for Congress now to ask questions about the deal, including why Congress was not notified at all. Critics have missed the key point that the Afghan conflict is winding down, and the United States would be required -- under the customary laws of war -- to return the remaining Taliban (but not al Qaida) detainees within the next few years. It is arguably better for the President to get something -- the return of an ailing U.S. soldier held in captivity -- rather than nothing in return. And it is arguably better to have sent them to Qatar to be held for another year, than to have returned them to the Karzai Government, which might have released them immediately. Yes, the Taliban five were and are dangerous people (although Obama Administration officials have never publicly acknowledged that the Bush Administration was right to detain them, as that concession would undercut the Administration's narrative that Guantanamo was a mistake). But the Bush Administration had also released more than five hundred people from Guantanamo, many of whom also posed some risk. And DoD and CIA have been highly successful in monitoring (and killing) former detainees who have returned to fight.
As for Sergeant Bergdahl, as I told Fox News earlier his week, “he will have to face justice, military justice….He was a young 20-year-old. Young 20-year-olds make stupid decisions. I don’t think we’ll say if you make a stupid decision we’ll leave you in the hands of the Taliban.” That is not what our country does to its soldiers.
The Bergdahl swap was a “hard national security choice” of the kind to which this blog is dedicated. President Obama made a defensible decision. If that decision has now become a political football, he has no one to blame but himself.