The Army announced yesterday that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was charged with desertion and misbehaving before the enemy. He was the Taliban captive for whom the U.S. traded five members of the Taliban held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba last June. The news prompted this question from CNN’s Jake Tapper, who has covered this story extensively:
Does this rollout make sense to anyone? https://t.co/smshSQOTFd
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) March 25, 2015
The link goes to a White House tweet from last year:
"It's a good day." —President Obama to Bob and Jani Bergdahl on the recovery of their son, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl pic.twitter.com/8gb6tkdSZ0
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) June 1, 2014
The triumphant rollout was clearly a disaster in many ways, which we’ll discuss below. It never should have happened. And Team Obama probably had no idea how badly it would go. But in a way, it worked.
You’re kidding, right? That rollout couldn’t have gone worse.
You’ll recall that the release of Bergdahl was announced with great fanfare, 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.” She also incorrectly stated that Bergdahl “wasn’t simply a hostage; he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield.” The White House talking points on the story were about how the move was pro-military and pro-family.
On social media, people who served with Bergdahl suggested the Obama administration had left out some significant and important details. About how Bergdahl had abandoned them voluntarily. About how soldiers had died searching for Bergdahl. About how some thought Bergdahl must be giving information to the Taliban that they used in attacks on them. 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.
Once these criticisms gained steam, some activists and their water carriers in the media went after the critics. (See: The 8 Stupidest Arguments Being Made About Obama’s Bergdahl Swap).
What was Obama thinking?
It was clear that the pushback the White House received surprised them. But they probably had a few goals with the dramatic and joyous way they rolled out the news.
Get people to stop talking about the festering Veterans Administration scandal. The swap occurred weeks after CNN first reported that dozens of U.S. veterans had died while waiting for health care at hospitals and that the Veterans Affairs managers had concocted a scheme to hide this problem. A story about a dramatic rescue of a U.S. soldier would counter the negative impressions Americans had from the dead veterans story.
Put Congress on the defensive. Analysts such as George Washington law professor Jonathan Turley say there’s no question that Obama broke a federal law that requires him to give Congress a 30-day warning of Guantanamo prisoner releases. Perhaps the White House thought the Bergdahl release would be greeted so happily that Congress would fear pushing back.
Divert attention from the Gitmo terrorists. As has been reported extensively, the Pentagon and intelligence communities fought the release of the high-ranking Taliban for many years. They were all “found to be high risks to return to the fight against Americans” and “clearly bad dudes,” likely to return to the fight against the U.S.
Grease the skids for closing Gitmo. Obama has long promised to shutter Gitmo. It’s a promise he’s failed to keep in part because many of the men held there are very bad. The options for release are limited. In order to close Gitmo, Gitmo has to be emptied of prisoners. Emptying a prison of guys like the Taliban Dream Team is a very difficult public relations operation. You almost need to have a POW to trade them for or something. A high-profile transfer with much emphasis on the American soldier brought home is one way to help accomplish that.
We already knew the particulars of the pushback the White House received surprised them. They probably expected that their own base might get a little excited about emptying Gitmo, that everybody would ease up a bit on the Veterans Affairs scandals, and that the media might portray any criticism of the swap as anti-family and anti-military.
Obviously it didn’t go down that way. But given how predictably Obama’s base and his critics have responded to him and how obsequious much of the media have been toward him, it was not an unreasonable gameplan.
How did it “work”?
I’ve long argued that President Obama should have explained that the Bergdahl situation was very complicated and that the decision to get Bergdahl was difficult because it came at such a tremendously high cost. Perhaps he could have reminded Americans about how ugly war is and how there were a lot of questions to sort through once Bergdahl made it safely home. And I still think that would have gone much better than it did. Of course, anything would have gone better than it did.
But the Rose Garden announcement of the Bergdahl swap did get people to ease up a bit on the Veterans Affairs scandal. The focus on Bergdahl meant that there wasn’t as much focus on high-level Taliban members who were released (and living in luxury in Qatar right now, it seems, awaiting release from supervision so they can return to the fight). And the Bergdahl story never became a dangerous story about Obama trying to close Guantanamo Bay.
So the rollout makes sense. Whether the White House will be held accountable for the triumphant press conference and the talking points about his heroism remains to be seen. But he’ll probably get away with it. The few tenacious reporters who have covered this story well are no match for the hordes who greeted even yesterday’s news about the charges with more of a yawn. And most people who don’t follow the news will only have their vague recollections that President Obama saved a prisoner of war. They’ll never hear the rest of the story.