Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, announced Tuesday that the Army may still pursue an investigation into whether recently rescued Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl deserted, confirming that a number of questions surround his capture by the Taliban in mountains of Afghanistan in 2009. Depending on the results of the inquiry, charges may even be filed.
The events that led to the return of America’s only prisoner of war have spawned even more questions from critics of President Barack Obama, lawmakers, and the intelligence community, meaning Bergdahl’s return has been highly politicized and will likely become fodder for debate ahead of this year’s midterm elections. The criticism that has been dumped on the White House for releasing five high-ranking Taliban detainees from the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Bergdahl has put Obama on the defensive. The problem is that many — including former members of the soldier’s platoon — believe Bergdahl did not deserve special treatment, given the persistence of allegations that he deserted his combat post. The fact that the President did not notify Congress in advance, as required by law, has only added to the controversy.
“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is: we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” Obama told reporters in Warsaw, the first stop on his four-day European trip. Noting that Bergdahl had been in captivity for more than five years, the president explained that the released POW had not been “interrogated” regarding the specifics of his capture by the Taliban. “Regardless of circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American prisoner back,” he said. “Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.” He also noted that the White House had been consulting with Congress “for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange in order to recover Sergeant Bergdahl.”
In other words, he was suggesting that lawmakers such as California Senator Dianne Feinstein should not be outraged that the White House took this opportunity to make the transfer.
Additionally, White House National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden told The New York Times that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had not only approved the exchange, but agreed that the 30-day notice should not apply in the case of Bergdahl.
“The administration determined that the notification requirement should be construed not to apply to this unique set of circumstances,” she said, because Hagel had “determined that providing notice as specified in the statute could endanger the soldier’s life.” Hayden added that the notice requirement would have interfered “with the executive’s performance” of primary duties set out in the Constitution: protecting American lives abroad and protecting American soldiers. “We believe it is fair to conclude that Congress did not intend that the administration would be barred from taking the action it did in these circumstances,” she said.
So what is driving the outrage?
Given there are no other American prisoners of war held by the Taliban, meaning this trade was a one-time event, it may seem that the transfer of Bergdahl has drawn too much criticism.
Republicans have even labeled the president’s action as “negotiating with terrorists,” referring to a Bush-era political maxim. “It has long been America’s unwavering, bipartisan policy not to negotiate with terrorists, especially for the exchange of hostages,” argued George W. Bush’s former U.N. Ambassador, John Bolton. “By trading to release hostages, we are invariably putting a price on the heads of other Americans.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio agreed, warning that the exchange could “encourage future terrorist kidnappings of Americans.”
Of course, there is the historical precedent to consider. Jimmy Carter’s administration conducted intricate negotiations with the Iranian government to secure the release of the dozens of Americans taken hostage in Tehran in 1979. At the time, Carter described the Iranians as terrorists. The hostages were eventually freed when the United States agreed to unfreeze about $11 billion in Iranian assets. Ronald Reagan made trades with the Iranians as well, secretly exchanging arms for the release of Americans held in Lebanon. (Although, it should be noted that Bolton condemned that transaction, which is known as the Iran-Contra Affair.) Even Bill Clinton met with Gerry Adams, the leader of the political wing of the Irish Republican Army who was then on the State Department’s terror list, while George W. Bush made deals with Sunni insurgents during the Iraq War, insurgents who had been killing American soldiers.
Still, Washington does have reason to be wary of rewarding hostage takers; al Qaeda has earned millions of dollars from ransoms paid by Western countries. And, as Rubio noted, the logic is not hard to follow: paying ransoms for hostages encourages enemies of the U.S. to repeat the behavior. “Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure,” read a May 2012 letter discovered by The Associated Press and sent by Naser Abdel-Karim Wahishi, leader of an al Qaeda affiliate, to leaders of an allied group in North Africa.
But Obama has claimed that Bergdahl was not a hostage grabbed by terrorists. Rather, he fits the classic definition of a prisoner of war, and the exchange of prisoners has occurred in many U.S. conflicts dating back to the Revolutionary War. In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Hagel made the same argument. “We didn’t negotiate with terrorists,” he said. “As I said and explained before, Sergeant Bergdahl was a prisoner of war. That’s a normal process in getting your prisoners back.”
The Taliban is not considered to be a “terrorist” enemy. It is not on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. While it may sympathize with terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad — a militant held in Guantánamo who was “identified as the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks” by the official government report — experts believe the Taliban is not currently plotting any acts of terrorism. The same can be said of the detainees released in exchange for Bergdahl. But because a number of those Taliban officials are said to have been linked to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network, Republicans have expressed concern for what their release means for U.S. national security. “These are the highest high-risk people. Others that we have released have gone back into the fight,” Arizona Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said in a May 31 statement. The concern expressed by McCain and his colleagues is not without reason. A senior Afghan intelligence official told Reuters that the released detainees “will be very dangerous people, because they have connections with regional and international terror organizations around the world.”
Obama has addressed that worry. “We will be keeping eyes on them,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “Is there the possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely. That’s been true of all the prisoners who have been released from Guantánamo. There is a certain recidivism that takes place. I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it would be contrary to American national security.” But for Republicans, his comments were not a strict assurance that those Taliban leaders would not return to the fight against the West.
Some GOP leaders have postulated that the exchange of those prisoners is a first step toward emptying Guantánamo. Obama promised in his 2014 State of the Union address that the prison would be shuttered by year’s end. “This whole deal may have been a test to see how far the administration can actually push it, and if Congress doesn’t fight back they will feel more empowered to move forward with additional transfers,” a senior GOP senate aide told The Daily Beast. “They’ve lined up all the dominoes to be able to move a lot more detainees out of Guantánamo and this could be just the beginning.”
The prisoner exchange also comes at an important point in the Afghanistan war timeline; the deal was revealed Saturday, only three days after President Obama announced that U.S. combat troops would be completely out of Afghanistan by 2016 — just before he leaves office. By the end of this year, the U.S. presence in the country will be reduced from the 32,800 troops to just 9,800, and the combat mission will be effectively over. “As I said earlier this week, we’re committed to winding down the war in Afghanistan, and we are committed to closing Gitmo,” the president said in a May 31 statement. “But we also made an ironclad commitment to bring our prisoners of war home. That’s who we are as Americans. It’s a profound obligation within our military, and today, at least in this instance, it’s a promise we’ve been able to keep.”
Obama’s statement on Afghanistan also served as backdrop for his Wednesday commencement speech at West Point, where he touted his limited foreign policy agenda for his final years in office. He told cadets graduating from the United States Military Academy that, “America must always lead on the world stage.” But the military cannot “be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance,” Obama said. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” Those words reiterated the themes that have been running throughout his presidency.
In his speech, he further fleshed out what has come to be known as the Obama doctrine, stressing that the United States must focus on using soft-power diplomacy and fighting terrorism through international partnerships. Essentially, his intention is to establish middle way between the interventionism of the past decades and a growing tendency toward isolationism. Following a middle way, the United States will eschew unilateral military force, unless its “people are threatened, its livelihood is at stake, or allies are in danger,” he said, leaving the threshold for military action much higher.
That plan has drawn criticism from the conservative lawmakers and pundits who have highlighted recent diplomatic setbacks in both Syria and Ukraine, conflicts that the United States has largely refrained from taking a dominate role. The Republican criticism of the methods the Obama administration used to bring Bergdahl home — negotiating with terrorists — matches their criticism of the president’s foreign policy. Both the so-called Obama doctrine and prisoner exchange put the United States in a less dominant role. But while it can be argued that the transfer was an exhibition of soft power, it is equally true that it succeeded in releasing an American prisoner of war. If the released detainees — who are required to remain in the gulf country of Qatar — do not pose a threat to National Security as the White House and some political experts maintain, the question is whether Republican lawmakers are over exaggerating their concerns for political purposes.
It will take time for that question to be answered. Undoubtedly, politicians will long debate the particulars of the deal, including whether it was right to trade five prisoners for just one soldier facing allegations of desertion. By comparison, the debate over whether the president negotiated with terrorists should be put to rest.
More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet:
- Obama’s Foreign Policy: America Can’t Make the World a Perfect Place
- Obamacare and Benghazi: Is the Real Crisis in American Leadership?
- Americans Still Hate Obamacare: Politicians, Your Move
Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS