Prisoner exchanges have become bonanzas for modern politicians, a political trifecta: the “gains” are tangible and immediate, the “losses” are remote and speculative, and therefore the public usually approves. For President Obama, who has developed the reverse-Midas touch (everything he touches turns to dross, or worse), the repatriation of Bowe Bergdahl has brought no respite from criticism, and indeed has intensified it. And for good reasons.
Seeing as the Taliban suggested this exchange – five terrorist commanders for the one American soldier – exactly one year ago only to have the administration reject it would tend to indicate that the deal was primarily a political, as opposed to a humanitarian, endeavor. On one level, the US negotiated a numerically better deal than did Israel for the freedom of Gilad Shalit. Shalit was traded for more than 1000 terrorists, whereas Bergdahl fetched only five in that execrable marketplace. But, from another perspective, the terrorists exchanged for Shalit, notwithstanding that they had collectively murdered hundreds of Jews in cold blood, were field terrorists, not commanders who were responsible not for one attack but for planning, coordinating and executing hundreds of attacks. A moral case can be made for both but has never seemed that compelling. The potential for future attacks still lingers (more than two dozen of Shalit’s tradees have already returned to terror, and some have already been apprehended again) and the blow to the morale of the families of terror victims who are forced to watch their loved ones’ murderers feted as heroes is substantial. Such doesn’t exist in the American exchange, which involved unrepentant commanders whose return to terror is guaranteed, and whose initial apprehension was carried out with bravery and sacrifice – now for naught.
Of course, the other distinction is even more troubling. Shalit, whose failure to defend himself according to doctrine has been noted but muted by the Israeli military, was at least a patriot serving his country. The well-founded suspicion that Bergdahl was a deserter exacerbates the moral question and introduces another dynamic completely different from the Israeli analogy. Why would America trade murderers, enemies of civilization, in order to free a deserter?
Obama referred to the American “military code” that requires that no soldier be left behind on the battlefield, implying that such applies to a prisoner-of-war (understandably so) but even to a deserter. The latter, though, is less clear. I spoke this week with a Marine captain, still on active duty with two long tours in the war zone to his credit, and he knew of no such code, either formal or informal, that demands the repatriation of deserters. Nor did he know of any obligation to rescue a deserter, allowing, of course, for the possibility of an immediate rescue attempt due to the uncertainty regarding the motives of any soldier and the difficulty in ascertaining such motives immediately after a soldier’s disappearance. But, this case aside, assuming that a particular soldier announced to all verbally and in print that he hates America, the military, the mission and himself and wishes to defect to the enemy, the Marine captain was unaware of any code that would necessitate risking lives in order to rescue such a person, and certainly not to trade active terrorists for him, a good reason why his entire unit was vehemently opposed to this exchange. (He added, delicately, that the President is the Commander-in-Chief, but clearly doesn’t know much about the military.)
My working assumption – and it is an assumption – is that deserters are pursued because otherwise they get away with their treasonous crime. If they are just left to be, then there is no penalty and therefore no deterrence for desertion. Capture or repatriation is thus a law enforcement tool, not a military one; as such, the fact that so many American soldiers were killed, and many others diverted from their essential military mission, in attempting repeated rescues of this suspected deserter, is most unsettling. And even if Bergdahl is proven to be a deserter, it is highly unlikely that he will be prosecuted; this most politicized of White Houses will never allow it.
Thus, what usually becomes a politician’s win-win – freedom for an American, parents beaming, basking in the glow of the pretensions of concern for the welfare of the US military – has become for Obama another flashpoint of controversy, and another example of his ineptitude in the exercise of foreign affairs. Unless, of course, Obama’s objective was to thrust Bergdahl into the care of the VA medical system, a fate that might have him yearning for an expeditious return to Taliban custody.
In any event, the collapse of American foreign policy – notwithstanding all the miles traveled by Hillary Clinton (touted as her major accomplishment), and probably because of them – is a tragic story whose conclusion has not fully played out and whose deleterious consequences will be felt for year to come. Obama’s America has lost its ability to positively influence world affairs, and probably has lost the will to do so as well. He operates in an environment that prizes words and gestures, especially empty but high-sounding ones, orchestrated by his handlers and media acolytes and admired by his adoring public. And his contempt for Congress and his indifference to laws he doesn’t like reflect a high-handedness that will only encourage future presidents and leave the populace even more disenchanted with their government.
Meanwhile, America meanders between an indifference to the growing world anarchy and favoring the wrong side of a variety of conflicts: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; for Assad and then against Assad in Syria; the Palestinian narrative in the land of Israel; et al. History will record that Hillary Clinton’s infamous “reset” button actually worked; unfortunately, it was successful in re-activating the Cold War. One retired diplomat said recently to a private group that Obama’s diplomacy is drawn straight from the “Model UN” structures that are so popular today from elementary schools through universities, and is about as realistic: all problems can be resolved, and quite quickly at that, if only the Obama script for the proper functioning of mankind is followed. Since the real world does not operate that way, Obama’s naiveté only encourages rogue states in their roguery. A future American president will not have the resources to pacify every zone of chaos forged by Obamaplomacy, and even if he could, he would need to have the desire to reassert American influence. The vacuum is that enormous, and the global system today is that anarchic.
While it would be comforting in part to attribute all this to incompetence, it is likelier and infinitely more dangerous that it is a willful effort on Obama’s part to reduce America’s footprint in the world, a footprint that he has perceived since his childhood as wrong, criminal, imperialistic, wholly unjustified and worthy of serial apologies. He wanted to be and is a transformative president, in which America’s global position reflects his disgruntlement with the American way of life. And so his tenure threatens to leave the United States and the world unrecognizable, with nuclear weaponry in the hands of rogue regimes and their proxies, terror ascendant, imperial Russia reborn and revanchist, and liberty under siege – not to mention a health care system for all modeled on efficiency of the government-run veteran’s health care network.
For sure, there is a temporary benefit in all this ineffectiveness in the avoidance of immediate war, even if more protracted and deadlier conflicts in various points across the globe are the long-term outcome. Short-term gain leading to long-term harm? Hmmm…
That sounds precisely like the Bergdahl case, one vivid detail in the tapestry of failure which we behold before our eyes.