How Obama is Navigating the Bowe Bergdahl PR Disaster

The release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in a prisoner exchange with the Taliban has morphed into a full-on political assault by Republicans and the conservative media, but on Tuesday, President Obama continued the administration’s posture of celebrating the fulfillment of our promise not to leave soldiers behind, while distancing itself from Bergdahl’s record of service. Aside from a significant deviation by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, this has been the White House’s narrative from the start.

Given the political turn this story has taken, the White House’s stance on Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s record of service, including the circumstances of his capture, could loom large in the future, when some GOP politician or conservative media hack wonders why the President held Bergdahl up as some kind of hero. As a matter of fact, when the President announced Bergdahl’s return in the Rose Garden on Saturday, he conspicuously praised everyone but Sgt. Bergdahl. While he congratulated Bergdahl’s parents on their pending reunion with their son, the President was clear about celebrating only that Sgt. Bergdahl “wasn’t forgotten by his country, because the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”

In stark contrast to the Bush administration’s handling of the rescue of Jessica Lynch and the death of Pat Tillman, there was no attempt to embellish or obscure any part of Bergdahl’s service, or to construct even a competent, let alone heroic, narrative. There was, however, one slight deviation by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who, in an appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, said that Bergdahl had served with “honor and distinction,” although the context of her remarks seems to make clear Rice was referring to his service prior to the circumstances surrounding his capture.

“There are a lot of questions about how he originally was captured and whether or not he had deserted, had left his post,”Stephanopoulos said. “Is that going to be investigated? And if it’s found that he did, indeed, leave his post, will he be disciplined or has he already paid the price?”

“Certainly anybody who has been held in those conditions, in captivity for five years has paid an extraordinary price,” Rice responded, adding “But that is really not the point. The point is that he is back. He is going to be safely reunited with his family. He served the United States with honor and distinction. And we’ll have the opportunity eventually to learn what has transpired in the past years.”

She then returned to the central theme, that “what is most important now is his health and well-being, that he have the opportunity to recover in peace and security, and be reunited with his family, which is why this is such a joyous day.”

If there was any doubt that Rice had perhaps slipped up with that turn of phrase, it was eliminated on Monday, when Jay Carney was asked of the White House stood by Rice’s assessment of Bergdahl’s service with “honor and distinction,” and Carney answered with the closest a press secretary can get to saying “Fuck that!”

Again, Carney emphasized the virtue of never leaving any soldier behind, and categorically refused to address Bergdahl’s service, or Rice’s comment about it.

Then on Tuesday, President Obama was asked about Bergdahl’s release, and specifically about the allegations surrounding his capture, and the President emphasized the promise never to leave a soldier behind in war, and placed Bergdahl’s service record at arm’s length. “With respect to the circumstances of Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban, we obviously have not been interrogating Sergeant Bergdahl,” the President said. “He is recovering from five years of captivity with the Taliban.”

“But let me just make a very simple point here,” Obama contiued, “and that is, regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that. And that’s what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into war theater should expect from not just their Commander-in-Chief but the United States of America.”

The President was also asked “Could Sergeant Bergdahl face discipline, or is that off the table?”

“That’s not something that we’re discussing at this point because our main priority is making sure that the transition that he’s undergoing after five years of captivity is successful,” President Obama responded.

The President has a fine line to walk where Bergdahl’s service is concerned because as Commander in Chief, he has a duty to ensure that Bergdahl is afforded due process. He can’t openly denounce him. Given that fact, the lengths to which the White House has gone (with the exception of Rice; maybe we can hold some hearings about that) to distance itself from Bergdahl’s service is quite extraordinary. If I were Bergdahl’s family, I’d have expected a little bit more, something along the lines of “Any American who puts on the uniform, yadda yadda.”But nothing.

Clearly, the White House was not expecting the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s detention to become so politicized, so quickly, but they obviously knew it would become an issue. In order for political attacks on Bergdahl’s actions to have any resonance, there has to be something for those attacks to push against, but no one is saying that Bergdahl’s a hero, or that he shouldn’t face consequences for those actions (just not right this second, while he’s learning English again).

What none of the President’s political critics are willing to disagree with, (at least not out loud) is that we “get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop,” or that “that’s what every mom and dad who sees a son or daughter sent over into war theater should expect.”

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