Despite President Obama’s claim Thursday that he’s “never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington,” the administration and its fans are struggling to tamp down widespread criticism of the deal that traded one soldier — who fellow infantrymen say deserted them — with five top Taliban prisoners held at the U.S. prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It’s a fair bet, given President Obama’s triumphant announcement in the Rose Garden featuring Bowe Bergdahl’s parents, that those in his inner circle severely miscalculated how such a presentation would go over with Americans. As they scramble to respond, they’ve made some stupid arguments in response to criticism. And critics have made some stupid arguments, too. Here are eight of the worst:
1) Critics are saying Bergdahl should have been left behind
Here’s how one prominent liberal put it:
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
This would be a great argument to make against critics of the swap if this was what they were saying. But they’re not. They may be saying we paid too high a price. They may be saying we went about it the wrong way, legally speaking. They may be saying it was stupid to tell Americans he was heroic when his colleagues say he wasn’t. They may be saying it sets a bad precedent that encourages people to kidnap Americans. They may be making a thousand other criticisms, and still not be arguing he should have been left behind.
Imagine it this way. Let’s say your newly assigned carpool partner shows up to pick you up and he’s drunk as a skunk, telling you to get in the car and that everything’s fine. Oh, and that he decided you’re going to pay for gas 100% of the time and a surcharge for repairs. If you decline to agree with him, this doesn’t mean that you hate carpooling. It just means you think he’s not the carpool partner for you. And how he’s going about things could cause serious problems.
2) People who called for his release but are now critical are flip-flopping hypocrites!
So Vox, Gawker and Slate all ran nearly identical pieces about people who had called on Obama to release Bergdahl but then got mad when he did it. And not just any people. These people include such luminaries as “lemontree46,” “Shannon //(*_~)\\,” and “JazzyVajazzleds.” (And no, I did not make any of those names up.) I mean, not that pointing out tweets from random people isn’t what explanatory journalism was invented for, but the entire argument is lame.
I don’t typically quote John Maynard Keynes but remember his line about changing positions? He said, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?” If Shannon-forward-slash-forward-slash-open-parentheses-asterisk-underscore-tilde-closed-parentheses-back-slash-back-slash thought — during the times no one was breaking their non-disclosure agreement to reveal eye-witness testimony about Bergdahl’s behavior — that this was a P.O.W. situation and then found out after the Rose Garden ceremony that it was much more complicated, should she have refused to change her mind? Really?
3) The motives of Bergdahl’s fellow infantry are suspect
Perhaps the single biggest reason the White House spin on the Bergdahl trade didn’t hold up was because almost immediately people who knew him in Afghanistan started talking about what they knew about his disappearance. While these details had been kept under wraps via a non-disclosure agreement, the rush to paint him as a homecoming hero was too much for many of them. Whether they viewed the non-disclosure agreement as no longer operationally important, or because they hadn’t signed one to begin with, some even started appearing on national news to give their side of the story.
The first attempt to fight this was to do something very unusual — talk about a public relations firm that had helped coordinate such appearances. Now, the fact of the matter is that public relations firms coordinate pretty much everything you see on television. But usually you don’t hear about it. Did the New York Times report, when it covered birth control activist Sandra Fluke, that she was represented by the firm of former White House communications director Anita Dunn? Of course not. How much coverage was given the fact that Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ late-term abortion filibuster was a public relations campaign? I think I saw one blog item.
What about the award-winning public relations campaign Planned Parenthood planned against the Komen Foundation? Not only were Planned Parenthood’s public relations firms not mentioned in stories about the campaign, the media actually was blatantly one-sided in which group it supported and which group it condemned in the contest between a breast health charity and the country’s largest abortion provider.
I could go on. But only in this case did we learn about this fact behind most major news stories. That attempt to discredit soldiers didn’t work, though, so White House aides told NBC’s Chuck Todd that they didn’t expect soldiers to “swift boat” Bergdahl. That was a reference to what happened when John Kerry ran for president by emphasizing his military service. The only problem was that those “swift boat” veterans who served with him had a different view. Democrats believed these attacks on John Kerry were unfair. An Obama administration official tweeted out his thoughts about the matter this week:
Here’s the thing about Bergdahl and the Jump-to-Conclusions mats: What if his platoon was long on psychopaths and short on leadership? (1/5)
— Brandon Friedman (@BFriedmanDC) June 5, 2014
Just … no. Speculating that the men who did not desert were “psychopaths” is just idiotic. Particularly since even if Bergdahl had problems with soldiers or leadership, that wouldn’t make him even remotely unique in the Army. What did make his situation unique was that he didn’t work through approved channels for resolving those issues without putting people in danger.
And now the New York Times is trying to make the claim that Bergdahl’s unit was “as much to blame” for his disappearance as he was. Sigh.
4) It doesn’t matter that Bergdahl was a deserter
This argument posits that since Bergdahl hasn’t yet been court-martialed, we can’t even consider the circumstances of his disappearance. While it is extremely important that Bergdahl be fairly tried for what other soldiers have accused him of, it’s not true that the Commander-in-Chief would be imprudent to consider these details in either his dealings with his terrorist captors or in his public presentation regarding the trade. Dan McLaughlin says it well:
The idea that the facts of Bergdahl’s disappearance could simply be wished away or pretended not to exist, simply because no court-martial had been convened, is ridiculous and juvenile … The military owed Bowe Bergdahl its promise to try to rescue him, even if he walked away. The nation did not owe him an agreement to compromise national security by surrendering five high-value prisoners without asking what we were getting in return.
5) Concerns that this sets a bad precedent or will lead to more hostage taking are overblown
Liberal pundits pooh-poohed the idea that global enemies would now be more inclined to try to secure a soldier as a hostage.
Now, we can hope that the circumstances of this exchange will have no negative effect on Americans’ safety, but it’s also true that it suggests nabbing yourself a soldier might be in your best strategic interest. Time magazine reported:
“It’s better to kidnap one person like Bergdahl than kidnapping hundreds of useless people,” the commander said, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “It has encouraged our people. Now everybody will work hard to capture such an important bird.”
Now, it’s also true that this exchange might raise the value of keeping a hostage alive as opposed to beheading him for propaganda purposes. But the point remains that Islamist foes aren’t stupid and can respond to new information as well.
6) The Taliban commanders we released weren’t that big a threat
Remember when Rolling Stone was genuinely counter-cultural as opposed to being a mouthpiece for the U.S. president? Well, those days are long gone. Rolling Stone published a laughable piece headlined “Four Myths About the Bowe Bergdahl Swap That Must Be Destroyed.” It might have better been headlined “Four White House Talking Points We Really Really Really Hope You’ll Swallow.” Anyway, one of them was:
MYTH: These five Taliban are the hardest of the hardcore
Now, maybe you’re into groups that kill girls for the crime of going to school. I don’t know. But, as Robert Tracinski writes, this was a Taliban Dream Team: “These were top officials in the Taliban regime: a provincial governor, a deputy defense minister, a deputy intelligence minister, a top arms smuggler, and a top Taliban military commander. Two of them are wanted by the United Nations for war crimes committed against Afghanistan’s Shiites.” He goes on, in response to a Politico editor’s suggestion that they couldn’t be that bad if they didn’t have superpowers:
Well, no, they don’t have superpowers. All they have is the influence and connections to get a gang of brutes together, and the absence of any of the normal vestiges of human conscience that would cause them to shrink from atrocities like: bombing schools because they let girls play sports; shooting a girl in the head; because she stands up for her right to be educated; horribly mutilating women to punish them for disobedience in their roles as marital slaves; dragging a 7-year-old out of the yard where he is playing and hanging him from a tree because his grandfather spoke out against the Taliban.
7) Bergdahl’s family is suspect
Now let’s look at some of the weak arguments coming from conservative critics. One prominent area of discussion they’re talking about is Bergdahl’s family. Namely his dad. They’re upset that he uttered an Arabic greeting at the White House, wrote — and deleted — severely anti-American tweets, and grew a long beard to show his son’s captors some sympathy. The thing is that it just doesn’t matter. He’s an American citizen with the freedom to do what he wants, particularly when it comes to facial hair! Also, he is a private citizen who did not swear any oaths to the country or otherwise have any responsibility for sensitive national security issues. The president does. Bergdahl swore an oath. These are the relevant actors.
8) Reports that Bergdahl was sympathetic to his captors or declared Jihad prove he should be considered a traitor
More recently, media outlets reported on intelligence briefings that suggested Bergdahl had, at some point, converted to Islam and declared Jihad.
The claim is that after prolonged captivity, which may have included torture, brainwashing or manipulation, Bergdahl may have converted. No one knows what his captors did to him and it’s not relevant to the matter at hand in any case. What is relevant is how Bergdahl behaved leading up to his capture and immediately following. Many of the men he served with are worried that he gave his captors information that hurt their work. Whether that’s true or not is relevant. What happened after prolonged captivity is far less important.