Yesterday morning at 5:45 AM, the Daily Beast published an article by liberal writer Michael Tomasky headlined “Bergdahl Is the Right’s New Benghazi.”
He was referring to the weekend news that the United States traded five members of the Taliban held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier held by Taliban affiliates. The release of Bergdahl was triumphantly announced, complete with a Rose Garden press conference featuring President Obama and Bergdahl’s parents. National Security Advisor Susan Rice went on the Sunday morning talk shows talking about how Bergdahl had “served the United States with honor and distinction.” No one must have thought the swap would be in any way controversial. The talking points came out suggesting that this was pro-military and pro-family. If the base got a little excited about the anti-Gitmo elements, all the better. If people stopped focusing on the Veterans Affairs scandals, who could blame them?
But soon the social networks were cluttered with comments that suggested the Obama administration had left out some significant and important details. About how Bergdahl — according to his fellow soldiers — abandoned them voluntarily. About how soldiers had died searching for Bergdahl. About anti-American statements made by Bergdahl and his father. About how high-up the Taliban we’d given up were. About how Obama hadn’t complied with a law requiring Congressional approval for release of prisoners.
Tomasky fought back as the tidy message spiraled out of control. He wrote that “to most Americans, this is a feel-good story. We value a life, one American life. … But of course, that doesn’t matter to the right. No one outside their base cares much about Benghazi, but that hasn’t stopped them. … The crazy never stops.”
Unfortunately for Tomasky and his fellow partisans, the attempt to ensure that this would be yet another scandal that the media ignore or downplay took a major blow. People started stating publicly what had been chatted about on social networks throughout the weekend.
In fact, the Daily Beast published an article — also at 5:45 a.m., by one of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers headlined “We Lost Soldiers in the Hunt for Bergdahl, a Guy Who Walked Off in the Dead of Night.” The subhed explained “For five years, soldiers have been forced to stay silent about the disappearance and search for Bergdahl. Now we can talk about what really happened.”
While the Army had made infantry members sign non-disclosure agreements, some soldiers were going ahead and telling what they knew. And none of it looked good.
For a sample of the coverage, take a look at:
- Stephen Hayes at The Weekly Standard: ‘We Swore to an Oath and We Upheld Ours. He Did Not.’ The soldiers in Bowe Bergdahl’s platoon speak up.
- Jake Tapper at CNN: Fellow soldiers call Bowe Bergdahl a deserter, not a hero
- CNN video: Soldier Who Served With Bergdahl: “At Best A Deserter And At Worst A Traitor”
- Politico: Criticism of Bergdahl deal mounts
- BBC: Soldiers conflicted on Bowe Bergdahl prisoner exchange
- Army Times: Gold Star mom: ‘This guy was worth my son’s life?’
You get the general idea. And these links don’t even get into the problems with how President Obama failed to comply with federal law requiring him to notify Congress of Gitmo prisoner releases. So what did liberal writers do? Well, they didn’t do a great job of reacting to this rare instance of not being able to control messaging. Here’s Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo at 6:04 p.m.:
I predict many years frm now, say 2014, wingers will be so far gone theyll mercilessly attack parents of returned POW http://t.co/19h7fppJz5
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) June 2, 2014
And here’s MSNBC’s Chris Hayes at 6:12 p.m.:
Am I correct that the American right-wing has spent the day arguing we should have left an American soldier behind? — Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) June 2, 2014
What makes me saddest about these tweets is my suspicion this is an actual messaging strategy on the left. Meanwhile, the deputy editor of Politico magazine aimed to downplay the news:
What’s the argument that these five Taliban guys are so dangerous? Are they ninjas? Do they have superpowers? http://t.co/kLW7RW3cgX
— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) June 3, 2014
Anyway, while I’m sure it seemed like a great idea to accuse critics of this deal of hating the troops and wanting to abandon an American soldier in the hands of terrorists, did anyone pause for a minute to think that through just a bit?
I mean, not just one or two people but a ton of people who Bergdahl served with think this was a terrible deal. They’re infuriated that their friends died to save a deserter. A lot of them are convinced he wasn’t just a deserter, but a traitor who helped the Taliban kill Americans. Do those soldiers hate the troops, too?
The tweets from Hayes and Marshall — and those that followed their lead — suggest true desperation about a situation that was horribly handled. Liberals are understandably scared and reacting in an almost panicked way. Whatever else might be said about Hayes, he’s not the ideal messenger to speak on behalf of American soldiers in any case. Around Memorial Day two years ago, he said he was “uncomfortable” calling soldiers who were killed in action “heroes,” on account of conflicted feelings about war — a statement he later apologized for.
In any case, what the White House is probably realizing, in hindsight, is that painting Bergdahl as a hero and the swap as unbridled good news were horrible errors. If President Obama had said that sometimes you need to do awful things — like give up five really bad terrorists in exchange for one deserter — because we never leave even our weakest man behind, he would have probably been fine. If he could have further explained why he needed to break the law requiring him to notify Congress of such deals, even better.
But what Americans instead got was someone micturating in their mouth and telling them it was raining.