Here we go again, with the conservative entertainment complex in high dudgeon about Bowe Bergdahl, and the fact that the Army sergeant was brought home in a Taliban prisoner swap. Last June’s freakout is new again, and the echo chamber’s simple-minded message is fit for a tweet: Obama Swaps Terrorists for a Deserter.
But the actual nuanced facts can’t be reduced to 140 characters.
Bergdahl disappeared from his base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009; he was captured by extremist groups and held for five years until his release last June. But peremptorily labeling him a deserter – as Fox News naturally decreed yesterday – perverts the American tradition of presumed innocence. Yes, the Army said yesterday that it’s charging Bergdahl with desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy,” but a military hearing (akin to a grand jury) will still need to determine whether there’s sufficient evidence for the charges.
And even if the military hearing OKs the charges, there’s no guarantee that he will be court-martialed for desertion – because, as legal experts point out, desertion could be very difficult to prove. As former military lawyer Geoffrey Corn explains, an Army prosecutor would need to show beyond a reasonable doubt (presumably by somehow divining Bergdahl’s state of mind), that the soldier “quit his unit with an intent to remain absent permanently – and he had to have that specific intent.”
But whatever the outcome, which could be a settlement short of prison, the point is that Bergdahl is right where he should be – back home in America, where his fate will be adjudicated by us, not by the Taliban. And anyone who thinks it was outrageous for the Obama administration to bring him home to U.S. military justice by swapping some bad guys…well, those critics don’t have a clue about American history. Because we’ve been “negotiating with terrorists” for more than 200 years.
Under George Washington, we paid more than $1 million in cash and assets to Barbary pirates, so that our captured sailors would be freed. Under Thomas Jefferson, we paid the terrorists in Algiers $60,000 for each captured sailor. President Obama’s critics would undoubtedly go into yeah-but mode – as in, “Yeah but Obama’s Taliban prisoner swap made America less safe” – thereby forgetting (or willing themselves not to know) that under Ronald Reagan, we worked a deal to free some American hostages in Lebanon by selling 2000 missiles to our arch-enemies in Iran.
And since the critics have so much love for Bibi Netanyahu, they should know that in 2011 Bibi forged a deal with Hamas, agreeing to swap 1027 prisoners – including a slew of Hamas terrorists – for the return of one Israeli corporal. Ponder that math for a moment. If Obama ever dared to do that kind of deal, the Fox News billboard at the bottom of the screen would be 1027 For 1. On Twitter, the right-wing hashtag would be #1027For1.
In America, the reason for these deals is embedded in what’s known as the Soldier’s Creed; anyone seeking a promotion to sergeant or higher is required to know it. A key line: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” And when rescue isn’t possible, we negotiate. As retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who led our troops in Afghanistan at the time of Bergdahl’s disappearance, said last year, “We don’t leave Americans behind. That’s unequivocal.” (Indeed, if Obama hadn’t brought Bergdahl home, and he had been executed by his captors, critics would’ve promptly banged Obama for leaving a soldier behind.)
And yeah, national security adviser Susan Rice was arguably wrong (in hindsight) when she said on TV last year that Bergdahl served “with distinction.” But the chickenhawks and keyboard warriors who are currently feasting on that soundbite would do well to remember that – unlike them – Bowe Bergdahl volunteered to serve his country by putting his life on the line. It’s so much easier to tweet abuse from the safety of one’s comfy chair.
More Barneyisms, from my Monday night gig with Barney Frank at the Free Library of Philadelphia:
On the futility of passing gun reform: “I wish every liberal organization would study the NRA and try to be like them. They are a very effective mobilizer of their political strengths. They get all their people to register to vote and they know who their legislators are. Most (liberalss) care about gun safety, but they care about a lot of other things – global warming, economic fairness, etcetera. The NRA has the advantage of having members who (vote) only about guns….If you forgo all interest in other issues and focus only on one issue, you can have outsize impact.”
On Hillary Clinton’s email flap, and her ’16 prospects: “I don’t think the American public cares, with all the issues it has, about which server somebody uses. It’s very much ‘inside politics.’ For some reasons, my friends on the left – we can’t ever really be satisfied (with a candidate), because somehow that’s not appropriate for us. If we’re satisfied, then somehow we’re not doing our job….I don’t want to see her get any opposition (in the primaries). I don’t want to waste any money in the primaries. People say, ‘It’s always good to have (competition). Yeah, tell that to Mitt Romney once he got through with that collection.”