The difficult politics surrounding the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl came roaring back this week with the announcement that he’s being charged with desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy (which sounds like the Taliban caught him in the latrine with a copy of Juggs). While the mainstream media has largely stuck to the Taliban Five angle of the story (Tito was always my favorite), there still remains considerable pressure to throw the book at Bergdahl, and a considerable effort, by conservatives, to flog the Obama administration over it.
There are a few substantive things to consider here, such as the fact that Bergdahl has only been charged, not convicted, and is still entitled to due process, and that people are only worried about the Taliban Five because we’re keeping such good track of them that we know they’ve been making noises about returning to the battlefield. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki patiently tried to explain all of this to Fox News’ Megyn Kelly this week, and reminded her that we don’t leave any American soldier behind:
Megyn Kelly: The folks who are critical of this say, yes, we do have a commitment to bringing every man and woman home, however there were other means of doing it. Your thoughts on that?
Jen Psaki: Well, Megyn, I think there are always a range of decisions and tough decisions the President of the United States always has to make. And that’s been the case for decades. It doesn’t reach his desk unless it’s a tough decision. that was certainly the case here.
Kelly: It was a tough decision, but was it the right decision? i mean, that’s the question. they look at three of these five taliban guys trying to return to terror now. and they didn’t need to be released from gitmo.
Psaki: You know, this is a commitment that we have made. we have long made, we have made for decades. We have the ability to track and work with the Qataris. The reason we know individuals were reportedly online and engaging with individuals they shouldn’t be is because we track it. It means the system of tracking works.
The segment also revealed what’s really behind the criticism, which is an attempt to slam the president based on the absurd notion that he was really just trying to unload some Gitmo prisoners, which doesn’t explain why Republicans were for a Bergdahl deal before they were against it. Bergdahl is an obvious proxy for Obama here. Ironically, the administration has been extraordinarily disciplined (except that one time) about not praising Bergdahl or his service, even more than Republicans. I went back and checked, and even before the release, administration officials always cited two things: the suffering of his family and the principle of never leaving any soldier behind.
Despite empty and false criticisms over “optics,” the president has consistently resisted the politically convenient position, opting instead to do the right thing. He didn’t embrace Bergdahl when Republicans were wailing for his release, and he didn’t shunt the family off into a corner when it happened.
Now that Bergdahl has been charged, hopefully the Defense Department follows suit, and considers the mitigating factors of Bergdahl’s detention, rather than political pressure to punish him harshly. According to Bergdahl, he was tortured by the Taliban after multiple escape attempts, in ways that I doubt even his irate unit-mates would wish to improve upon:
“In the beginning of my captivity, after my first two escape attempts, for about three months I was chained to a bed spread-eagle and blindfolded,” Bergdahl wrote.
“Around my ankles where the chains were, I developed open wounds. … During these months some of the things they did was beat the bottoms of my feet and parts of my body with a copper cable.”
He also says he was beaten with a rubber hose, fists and the butt of an AK-47, so hard the rifle’s stock broke off. He was repeatedly threatened with execution, and “kept in constant isolation during the entire 5 years.”
Now, it’s certainly possible that Bergdahl is being somewhat self-serving on his recollections, but his account is broadly corroborated by independent intelligence reports, particularly in the run-up to his release, when officials were convinced he was in imminent danger of death.
As for the Taliban Five, the White House has given what assurances it can without revealing classified information. See if you can read between the lines of this exchange from Thursday’s White House briefing aboard Air Force One (transcript via email from The white House) between the AP’s Nedra Pickler and Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz.
Nedra Pickler: Let me ask you then about the Taliban five. There’s been some concerns about whether they could return to the battlefield. Is the United States going to ask Qatar to keep them beyond the year agreement that they have?
Eric Schultz: Sure, Nedra. We do remain in continuous communication with the Qatari government, but I’m not going to be able to comment on the specifics of those conversations. But we do have tremendous confidence that, working closely with our partners, we are going to be — we will be able to continue to be in a strong position to substantially mitigate the potential risk that these individuals may pose.
Pickler: But you are asking them to stay at Doha at this point?
Schultz: I’m not going to be in a position to read out details of those conversations. But I can tell you that our team is working with the Qatari government to make sure those threats remain mitigated.
(Sneezing noise) Drone meat!
If Bergdahl is found, or pleads, guilty to desertion, there are legitimate reasons for people to want him punished, but the politics of whipping Obama isn’t one of them, and the suffering he endured in captivity should be considered heavily.