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A.B. Stoddard: Obama’s Bergdahl blunder

Perhaps President Obama stumbled into an announcement of the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl that was ignorant and insulting to those who serve our country in uniform, but his subsequent reaction to the criticism it has provoked is a disgrace. 

Across oceans, surrounded by European leaders with the eyes of the world watching, our commander in chief refused to find measured and presidential words to describe the difficulty of his choice Thursday, dismissing objections from lawmakers in both parties as some typical Washington food fight, saying “I’m never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington, all right?”

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Bergdahl needed to come home, but it appears Obama has failed to appreciate that Americans are scared of what they have learned about the five top most wanted men our government allowed Taliban leaders to choose in exchange for Bergdahl. Democrats, Republicans — familiar or unfamiliar with the traditions of war — are asking why this could happen and how soon the five men will be back in the fight against us. Those in the military, who know desertion as one of the most severe crimes in the military justice system, are outraged. Members of Congress, a co-equal branch of government, were not only left out of the decision-making process about the swap but haven’t even earned the respect of a heads-up from the Obama administration, which felt it fit for them to learn about it on television Saturday when the rest of us did.

Why?

Wrapping the release of Bowe Bergdahl in the glow of patriotism in the White House Rose Garden was undoubtedly a cynical attempt to soften the blow of something — the Department of Veteran Affairs scandal, plans to begin closing Guantánamo Bay by releasing our most threatening detainees first, the fact that the president potentially broke the law by refusing to consult with Congress, or that Bergdahl had likely deserted his post.  

It’s not that Obama shouldn’t have negotiated with terrorists and traded some of them for the return of Bergdahl, but the announcement should have been made without photographs or footage of Obama hugging his family, and it should have been made clear to the American public that, should an investigation conclude Bergdahl deserted his post, endangered his fellow soldiers or betrayed his country in any way, that he will be punished accordingly. 

In addition, suggesting that all prisoners of Guantánamo Bay must eventually be returned anyway stands contrary to everything Americans have been told since Sept. 11, 2001: that we are at permanent war with non-state actors who don’t follow traditional rules of battle and we will never be signing treaties with terrorists. Obama has never expressed that this was at all an agonizing decision involving a dangerous sacrifice but one worth the risk to our country. Too many of his closest aides have told reporters how “surprised” they have been by the strength of the reaction against Bergdahl’s release.

Consulting with Congress and the military are a critical part of the president’s job, and though a commander in chief always has the power to make swift unilateral decisions without consulting either the Pentagon or the legislative branch, this was a case in which at least informing lawmakers and military leaders would have not only been better for the country but better for Bergdahl as well.   

One retired, highly ranked military official lamented that “no one thought to have a military aide call the Battalion Command Sgt. Major of his unit and ask him how our combat forces would react to [the president’s] Rose Garden embrace” of Bergdahl’s parents.

President Obama has more than two years left in office. He should learn from this staggering miscalculation and try listening to those who represent us in Congress and those who sacrifice for our freedom in the armed forces when making decisions that will impact the United States long after he is gone.

 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.