Before long, we'll surely be hearing that Barack Obama arranged for the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl to distract the country from Benghazi. Or maybe the theory is already making the rounds on talk radio; I'm not sure. But this messy episode reminds us of how little the people who fetishize "toughness" and want desperately for the War on Terrorism to extend into eternity actually grasp about where we find ourselves in 2014.
But before we get to that, if you go to any conservative site today, you'll see one piece after another attacking Bergdahl, with the implied or stated conclusion that we should have just left him there. Some of the people with whom Bergdahl served say he was a deserter. And they may turn out to be right. But there was enough uncertainty about what he did, and why, to make the idea of just leaving him unacceptable. That's part of the reason why so many conservatives attacked the Obama administration for not doing enough to get Bergdahl out—until the administration actually did it, at which point they switched to criticizing the administration for doing it, with barely a breath in between. My personal favorite is former Rep. Allen West, who last December lambasted Obama for not retrieving Bergdahl, then yesterday called for Obama's impeachment for retrieving Bergdahl. Others who have switched their position on Bergdahl include John McCain, who didn't just push for Bergdahl's release, he endorsed precisely this deal in February, before it became a handy way to bash Obama.
That's just cynical opportunism; it's safe to say that they were full of it when they claimed before to care so deeply about Bergdahl's fate, and they're being no more honest now when they say they're outraged about his release. But what's most galling is the way they're talking about the consequences of the deal. It's enough to make you feel you've been transported back to 2002.
The residue of the Bush years makes any attempt to grapple with the complexity of a situation like this one so trying. The meaningful distinctions that make it possible to navigate through complex security challenges are getting washed away in a tide of juvenile rhetoric, in which all "bad guys" are the same and every potential danger is a catastrophic one. Take for starters the criticism that because we arranged a prisoner exchange with the Taliban (using Qatar as an intermediary), we've "negotiated with terrorists," which everyone knows we must never do. If you turn on Fox today you'll hear that phrase a hundred times. But as Fred Kaplan has pointed out, we didn't "negotiate with terrorists" to obtain Bergdahl's release, we negotiated with our adversaries in a war we're fighting, just like we've done in pretty much every war we've ever fought. For the same reason, Bergdahl wasn't a hostage, he was a POW. And as others have suggested, if we're ending our involvement in the Afghanistan war over the next year or two, eventually under the laws of war we'd probably have to return Taliban prisoners like the five we exchanged for Bergdahl anyway.
In the atmosphere of the moment, those simple assertions of fact are likely to be met in some quarters with, "Are you defending the terrorists!?!" But the distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda is an important one, and it doesn't require making a judgment that the Taliban are better than terrorists in some way. They have a particularly noxious ideology, and their rule over Afghanistan was ghastly. But they're still combatants in the war we're fighting there. There are going to be more negotiations with them over the ultimate political settlement in Afghanistan; it's distasteful, but it's reality.
Next, take the argument that the five Taliban prisoners are now going to go "back to the fight" and prove a grave danger to Americans. Might they pose some risk? Sure. But they're going to be in Qatar for a year, likely under house arrest, and by the time they could get back to Afghanistan our presence there will be dramatically scaled back to a mere 10,000 troops acting as trainers and advisers. We won't be fighting that war.
And more importantly, as I'm growing tired of pointing out, these guys aren't comic book super-villains. They can't bend steel with their minds, or shoot fire from their eyeballs, or leap tall wadis in a single bound. But that's the way conservatives always talk about Guantanamo prisoners. Remember the controversies over whether we could hold trials for terrorism suspects in New York or whether we should move them to super-max prisons within the U.S.? Republicans said they were just too dangerous for that, despite the fact that the number of prisoners who have escaped from those facilities is exactly zero.
And these five have been sitting in jail for over a decade (some of them were captured in 2001 and some in 2002). The idea that they pose some kind of unique threat—they're "the toughest of the tough," John McCain bleated—is just absurd. Of course all else being equal we'd rather not release them, and of course it's possible that one day they could participate in some action aimed at the remaining Americans in Afghanistan. But whether such an attack ever occurs isn't dependent on them.
The whole question of Bergdahl's release is complicated in every way. He wasn't a hero. We did have to give up something real to get him back. There are some risks involved. You can have an honest discussion about all those components of the issue without devolving into hyperbole. But I guess that's too much to ask.