President Obama hugs Jani Bergdahl, as her husband Bob looks on.
Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster
President Obama hugs Jani Bergdahl, as her husband Bob looks on.

Charity and scrutiny in the Bergdahl swap


Pity the soul that gets mixed up in this bizarre circus that is the Obama administration.

At 4 a.m. on June 30, 2009, a U.S. soldier reportedly abandoned his gear and roamed off into the Afghan countryside. What exactly he was thinking, we do not know. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is said to have been disillusioned with the Army and his country, and horrified by the brutality of the conflict. Leadership and morale in his unit are said to have been terrible. A month later he was featured in a Taliban propaganda video. But despite a 2012 feature on him in Rolling Stone, the country paid little attention.

His parents, Bob and Jani, gave the matter their entire attention. Bob grew out his beard and learned to speak Pashto in hope of gaining the ear and sympathy of his son’s captors. The circumstances of Bowe’s capture did not matter. His troubled frame of mind only deepened their pain and concern. Even after Bowe’s release, Bob used the White House Rose Garden event to assure his son of his father’s love and, in Arabic, of God’s gracious disposition. Of course.

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Enter President Barack Obama, the political figure whose managerial competence and public relations savvy appear to be in a free fall. After years of negotiations, he agreed to a sudden deal to exchange five top Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay for Sgt. Bergdahl. That’s where everyone’s public trouble began.

Attempting “to spin a feel-good story from a messy set of facts,” as Time’s David Von Drehle put it, Obama paraded the parents before the national press without any recognition of the complexity of the situation. Did he think that national joy would eclipse the predictable concern over trading high-level enemy commanders—one of them charged with war crimes—for a suspected deserter? Making matters worse, the next day, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, praised the freed soldier, whom she claimed was “captured on the battlefield,” as having “served the United States with honor and distinction.”

So it is no surprise that the next week was abuzz with investigation, debate, angry resentment, and careless insinuations. Why this price for this prisoner, and why now? “Leave no man behind” is a battlefield ethic, not a statesman’s rule. Why the secrecy? Why the non-disclosure agreements for the platoon? Why the changing and misleading stories? Why the hero’s welcome, inflated praise, and parental involvement?

Why did the president not give Congress prior notice of the Gitmo prisoner release, as the law requires? After claiming he did tell Congress (years ago), and then after his “captive’s health” excuse for not telling them failed to convince senators from both parties, Obama produced his “Taliban gag order” excuse. Never mind that, with justified confidence, he kept the Senate and House Intelligence committees informed on the Osama bin Laden raid well in advance. Shifting answers invite dogged scrutiny.

Questions understandably swirled around Bowe Bergdahl’s family. The media should been more careful with Bob Bergdahl. He is a suffering POW dad who deserves our inexhaustible sympathy and most charitable judgments. As for Bowe, what exactly he did in 2009 and why he did it are ultimately for a military court to settle. But what the president has done and said over the last two weeks, given what he knew about the people involved, is rightly a matter for intense public scrutiny.

If President Obama had been forthcoming from the start, recognized the trade-offs, and declared his call, he would have secured most people’s trust and sympathy if not their agreement. But instead he went the secrecy route, whether from disdain, deceit, or habit. As a consequence, Obama has further weakened his authority and complicated the lives of an already suffering family.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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