The exchange of five Guantanamo detainees for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has reminded us of three unpleasant facts of life:
The United States does negotiate with terrorists; the president will circumvent laws as circum-stances require; Republicans and Democrats will be summarily outraged as party affiliations seem to require.
We might also add that processes will be “truncated,” as President Obama described the exchange, and these are “hard choices,” as Hillary Clinton put it, cleverly employing the title of her new book.
Which is to say, war is tricky and we have no idea what we’re willing to do until the ball is in our court.
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It is easier now to wish we had not invaded Iraq, given the absence of weapons of mass destruction. But in the wake of Sept. 11, when the Western world was convinced that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, eliminating a destabilizing force in the region seemed to many a viable strategy.
It seemed so to then-Sen. Clinton, who voted for the resolution to use military force against Iraq, but not to Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator who didn’t have to decide.
As president – how time flies – Obama has followed through on his campaign promises to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but not to close Guantanamo. Promises are sometimes harder to keep when the facts are in your face. Obama also has increased drone “warfare,” eliminating enemies as well as civilians and at least one American citizen deemed to be a combatant without, shall we say, due process.
So, yes, he is the non-war president, except … and he follows the law and protects the Constitution, unless … and he wants to close Guantanamo, but encountered the same daunting obstacles that George W. Bush did.
Obama has justified his decision to release prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl on the basis of precedent – other presidents have released prisoners as wars wind down – and on the principle that we don’t leave our people behind.
Equivalency is a fragile argument here. Bush’s wars and Obama’s drones are clearly not the same. And George Washington’s release of British prisoners during the Revolutionary War can’t be compared to freeing Taliban warriors.
What is often similar, however, is the moment of truth when a president has to make his own call because he thinks beyond reasonable doubt that it is the right decision.
It is possible that some of the current criticism is tied to partisan pride as well as the opening of old wounds. Seeing the five bearded detainees was a vivid reminder of Sept. 11 and its chief perpetrator, Osama bin Laden. The sight of Bergdahl’s father, bearded and speaking Arabic and Pashto as he invoked Allah in the Rose Garden with the president, was both strange and creepy.
There is nothing trivial about these events, but the questions raised are, nonetheless, “Homeland”-ishly intriguing: Did Bob Bergdahl convert to Islam? Did his son? Did Bowe Bergdahl abandon his post, as fellow soldiers claim? Is he a traitor?
Until the Army provides answers, we’ll have to make do with speculation. Meanwhile, the only question that required an immediate response was: Did the United States want Bergdahl back and what were we willing to trade?
This was indeed a hard choice – and the answer had to be “yes.”