“What I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball. Who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake?”
—Susan Sarandon as Annie Savoy in Bull Durham
I suppose these things happen.
In 1989 the Minnesota Vikings gave the Dallas Cowboys five players and six draft picks (including three #1 picks and three #2 picks) for an aging Herschel Walker and a couple of mid-late round draft picks that, other than receiver Jake Reed, didn’t turn into anyone you’ve ever heard of, and the Vikings haven’t even sniffed the Super Bowl since. Dallas converted those picks into (among others) Hall-of-Famer Emmitt Smith, Pro Bowlers Darren Woodson and Russell Maryland, receiver Alvin Harper, and three Super Bowl wins in four years in the early-to-mid-1990s.
A lopsided deal, to be sure. But as far as I know, nobody died in the process.
By now you’ve seen that the Obama Administration made a deal with the Taliban to exchange five jihadists from Guantanamo Bay for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held prisoner in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2009. On its face this doesn’t seem like a major issue, and one might even call it a victory any time we can secure the return of an American POW. The U.S. government has on many occasions and under a number of administrations engaged in spy swaps and other forms of prisoner exchanges.
But this one struck me as different from the get-go, and as more facts emerge—and I confess we’re still pretty early in that process—the worse this thing looks.
To begin with—and maybe this is just my ignorance—I thought it a bit odd that the Taliban even had a U.S. prisoner to exchange. I did not know they were in the business of keeping live American prisoners, and indeed it turns out that Sgt. Bergdahl was the only one they had. Which in itself begs the question why they had him alive in the first place; what value was he to them?
Then there was the notion of the exchange rate. I do not mean to imply that any human being is more or less valuable than any other, but in return for this single infantry sergeant the Obama administration gave up five reportedly senior Taliban officials and military leaders, including men with direct ties to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden (don’t sweat that, because Obama got a pinky-promise from the government of Qatar that they’ll keep an eye on these guys for the next year, just to make sure they don’t revert to their more violent tendencies; you’ll forgive us, however, if we wonder if that’s as good as the one Obama gave Bart Stupak (D-MI)). Not only is that effectively trading generals for foot soldiers, but it’s not even a 1:1 deal. Of course, we’ve seen how Obama negotiates with anyone outside the GOP, so that isn’t particularly a surprise.
But I can excuse all of that.
What I can’t excuse are the details that are emerging about the apparent circumstances of Bergdahl’s “capture,” and the way the President went about making this deal.
All the facts are not in; the Pentagon says it will investigate the matter, and unlike the many other promises from this Administration that it will investigate this, that, or the other thing and hold those responsible accountable—see Benghazi, Fast & Furious, IRS, NSA, VA, etc.—this one I sort of believe. But what appears to be coming clear is that Bergdahl was not an ordinary POW captured in combat. Multiple reports from men in his unit—apparently until now suppressed by the Pentagon, undoubtedly at the direction of the White House—indicate that Bergdahl instead was a deserter who walked off his post and voluntarily into the hands of the Taliban (which might explain in part why he was in the unique position of being in Taliban hands alive).
That’s bad enough, and I understand that the military takes such a dim view of desertion that the penalties for such an action are, well, somewhat on the stiff side. One could reasonably ask why you would give up anything in exchange for a deserter. But what really should bother everyone about this is the fact that the U.S. military spent as much as 60 days trying to find and rescue Bergdahl, and as many as 14 U.S. soldiers died in the process. Add to that the however many Americans killed in the process of capturing the five jihadists released from GITMO in order to get Bergdahl back. By making this deal, the Obama administration has cheapened those sacrifices, if not nullified them entirely, all for what really amounts to a political smoke screen—since when does Obama give a crap about the military—aimed at distracting attention from the VA debacle (which was distracting attention from the Benghazi and IRS scandals, which were distracting attention from FUBARCare . . . ).
That ought to make you sick to your stomach.
Worse still, all of the nearly 3,000 Americans killed in Afghanistan—every one of them a volunteer, by the way—presumably died defending this country and the American way of life; a way of life that was supposed to be grounded in the rule of law and separation of powers guaranteed under the Constitution. Say what you will about whether that’s what we’re accomplishing in Afghanistan from a policy standpoint—and it’s a fair complaint after twelve mostly rudderless years, and three years after the last plausibly legitimate objective was achieved—for people who volunteer to go there and serve, that’s what they believe they’re doing, and it’s why they’re doing it. Yet, the Bergdahl trade represents yet another act in this Administration’s continuing imperial erosion of that concept.
Under the National Defense Authorization Act, the White House was obligated to give Congress 30 days’ advance notice before releasing any GITMO detainees. Obama ignored this, and told no one in Congress ahead of time, except apparently Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who claims he was notified just before it happened. Even liberal Harvard law professors and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) acknowledge that this was a violation of the law. The Obama Administration claims—depending on when you ask them—it could not give notice because Bergdahl’s health was deteriorating such that his life was in immediate danger and they could not risk a delay scuttling the deal, or that the Taliban was going to kill him; but video of Bergdahl’s release appears to show him in reasonably good health, and it’s unclear why he would have suddenly been in immediate danger after having been in captivity for five years. At this point in this Administration, does anyone with a mind even bother listening to the explanation du jour?
Part of the problem here is that it turns out that an exchange of GITMO prisoners for Bergdahl had been under consideration as far back as 2011—in itself begging the question why the sudden urgency now—and Congress told the President no. But the bigger issue is the underlying attitude of this Administration that if in its sole judgment circumstances warranted a more expedited approach, then the law passed by Congress and signed by him simply didn’t apply. This President has such utter contempt for Congress, the Constitution, and the separation of powers, and views himself so above the law, that none of it matters. This prisoner exchange, like so many actions by this lawless President, is totally at odds with the framework of freedom so many have died in that godforsaken hellhole to defend. Left unchecked, it leaves us yet another step down the path of voiding the price those servicemen and servicewomen paid.
And that’s a bad trade, indeed.