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A Bad Deal Back in the News

The American public’s memory is short, and until Wednesday it had likely forgotten the name of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
He was briefly a celebrity last year when he was released from Taliban captivity in exchange for five high-ranking terrorists being held at the Guantanamo Bay in a deal brokered by President Barack Obama, complete with a Rose Garden news conference featuring Bergdahl’s teary-eyed parents and assurances from the White House that the freed prisoner had “served his country with honor and distinction.” There was a brief controversy about it, given that the five high-ranking terrorists were certain to return to their murderous ways, the teary-eyed father’s remarks in English and Arabic and Pashto at the news conference revealed he was a Taliban-sympathizing nut, and the soldiers who served with Bergdahl were telling anyone who would listen that he was a deserter and collaborator, and the Government Accountability determined the president’s deal had violated federal law, but it soon passed.
Until Wednesday, when the Army announced that Bergdahl would be court-martialed on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Even Bergdahl’s brief celebrity is enough to interest the media in a trial, so we can expect extended coverage of the evidence brought against him, and one can only hope that it will rekindle some of the public outrage that attended his release. Five high-ranking terrorists were released for him, a trade that looks even worse as the tide of war continues to not recede, Bergdahl’s Taliban-sympathizing nut of a father will likely become an annoying presence on the nation’s newscasts, and the president’s tendency to go beyond the traditional legal restraints on executive power has continued to prove troublesome, so perhaps the outrage will be even greater this time around. Should one of those five released high-ranking terrorists be able to claim credit for notably deadly attack Americans might grow greater yet, although the scant coverage of the terrorism committed by other prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay suggests it will have to be something spectacular.
There’s no getting those terrorists back, and little hope of persuading the current administration to capture and incarcerate any more of them, but the public outrage might do some good. The Bergdahl trade was one of several briefly outraging stories over the past many years that have steadily eroded the president’s support on foreign policy, and the public’s discontent has emboldened members of both in Congress in to resist the president’s effort to negotiate a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program. So far the administration has declined to offer any details about what they’re offering, asking that the public trust its good intentions and expertise, but it’s hard to trust anyone who would swap five high-ranking terrorists for a deserter to make a deal with the likes of the Iranian government.
Much of the media will be looking for something else to talk about other than nuclear bombs and what might happen if Iran gets some, and the Bergdahl story could prove a distraction, and there will certainly be some stories about the poor young man caught in George W. Bush’s war who reached out to the enemy, but it won’t help with the president’s public relations efforts.

— Bud Norman

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Lingering Headlines, Dwindling Hope

Some cynics have suggested that President Barack Obama’s release of five high-ranking terrorists from the Guantanamo Bay war prison in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was timed to detract attention from the scandalous mismanagement of the Veterans Administration that had dominated the headlines in the preceding days. If so, the stratagem seems to have succeeded. The prisoner swap isn’t following the script of  the heart-warming remake of “Saving Private Ryan” that the administration intended, and is instead getting panned by even the most supportive critics, who find the story less rousing when everyone in Private Ryan’s unit is telling anyone who will listen that he was a deserter whose desertion cost the lives of the other men, which has forced the administration to resort to slandering those men, but at least no one is talking about the VA.
They’re still talking about it in Congress, where a deal in the works to pass a bill that will fix everything that’s been wrong with the VA the past many years. According to the few reports still being filed about the issue, the bill would cough up another $2 billion and allow whoever was tabbed to replace that Gen. Shinseki guy to actually fire someone. Negotiations have apparently stalled over how much power the VA Secretary should have to fire someone, with those crazy Republicans and their private sector predilections insisting on unlimited discretions and those sober Democrats with their public sector principles insisting on three-week appeals and other proprieties. While the negotiations drag on honorable veterans dependent on VA care will continue to sit on off-the-books waiting lists to get medical care, but the truly compassionate will be relieved to know that Private Bradley Manning’s sex-change operation won’t be delayed during his stay in prison for leaking government secrets,
Leading the negotiations are Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and independent socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont, which also does not inspire hope, but we’re hoping that McCain’s tougher approach will prevail. our experience of institutions tell us that fixing the broken ones requires that somebody be fired, although it seems unlikely that anyone appointed by the current administration will be reluctant to do so even if given the authority. The authority to clean house seems more important than that niggling $2 billion, given that the VA’s funding has tripled since 2001 even as the number of veterans has declined from 25.5 million to 21.9 million. Some loyal Democrats are still grousing that the VA is underfunded, but veterans are a key Republican constituency and even their non-veteran voters tear up at the mention of military service, so “full funding” is one of the few campaign promises that Obama has actually kept. All those dollars spent divided by the much smaller number of veterans actually seeking care from the VA would amount to a substantial voucher check, which would allow those patients to fire at will any doctors putting them on a waiting list and find other providers for care far more essential than a sex-change operation, but that is probably too much to hope for from the current government.
The situation is infuriating enough that the administration would probably just as soon have us talking about that ill-advised and extra-legal prisoner swap, and there aren’t many other promising topics of conversation to take up. The economy leaves record numbers of Americans out of work and in poverty and on government assistance, more problems with Obamacare keep popping up, that lady from the Internal Revenue Service is still pleading the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering questions about the agency’s harassment of dissident groups, and from the increasingly bloody Ukraine to the rout in Syria to the still-chugging nuclear program in Iran to the latest Chinese aggressions in eastern Asia there is little to boast about. Even those kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls that Obama frequently mentioned in his recent triumphalist major foreign policy address at West Point are still in captivity. The outraged headlines shift from topic to topic with every few days, but none inspire any faith in the administration.
Nor does the news inspire any hope in the change that will comes from the administration’s broader aspirations. The prisoner swap was probably intended to make the administration’s long-stated goal of closing Guantanamo Bay more attainable by releasing its most dangerous prisoners, but the backlash makes any further releases a provocation to impeachment. That continuing mess at the VA raises doubts about the government’s ability to manage manage health care for the rest of the country through Obamacare, especially when the Democrats are so stubborn about firing anyone, and the liberal argument that these people know best and should be allowed to run every aspect of your life seems all the more implausible. That prisoner swap is proving a fiasco for the administration, but it still might be a useful distraction.

— Bud Norman

When the Story Goes Awry

That swap of five high-ranking terrorists for a sergeant isn’t proving the public relations bonanza that President Barack Obama expected. We must confess our surprise that it’s even turning out to be a public relations debacle, as we’d predicted the media would play along with the heartwarming tale of an American boy returned to the warm embrace of his family and small Idaho town, and we can only imagine very taken aback Obama must be.
The heartwarming tale seemed promising when Obama trotted it out on Sunday at the White House with the soldier’s grateful parents by his side, with the photo opportunities of a mother and child reunion and the hero’s homecoming in the Frank Capraesque small Idaho town scheduled to overcome any coldhearted calculations about the wisdom of dealing with terrorists and releasing dangerous war criminals and flouting a law the president had signed in the process, but it all started to fall apart as soon as the anti-American crazy-pants dad with the Taliban beard started took to the podium with the presidential seal and started reciting Koranic verses in Arabic and Pashto. Within hours even such usually reliable media as CNN, CBS, National Public Radio, and the American Broadcasting System were reporting that the rescued son had also expressed similarly anti-American crazy-pants opinions before wandering off base in his civvies, complete with quotes from just about everyone in the son’s platoon that the son was a “deserter at best and traitor at worst.” Other media soon reported at at least six men died in the resulting search, all of whom also had mothers who could provide compelling quotes to the Fox Network and other of the more aggressive outlets, and some suggested that the son even aided the enemy while he was what his father described as a “guest” of the enemy combatants. There were also stories about the terrorists being released, one of them wanted for war crimes by the same World Court that the lefties always want to hand Dick Cheney, and some unhelpful photos of them being welcomed as heroes by the terror networks that were claiming great victory. The Washington Post did its best to cast the anti-American crazy-pants dad in a sympathetic light, and a plucky columnist for The Daily Beast tried mightily to be offended by all the hubbub, and the same National Security Advisor Susan Rice who’d peddled the bogus Benghazi story while United Ambassador was going on the record that the son had served “with honor and distinction,” but for the most part the press was awful.
By Tuesday the conventionally wise The Hill was declaring that “Prisoner swap blows up on White House,” the same Time Magazine that once portrayed Obama as Franklin Roosevelt was reporting that the highest-ups at the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies were washing their hands and covering their behinds over the matter, the small town parade and its promising optics had been cancelled, and Democratic Senators facing re-election were going far off-script. Things got so bad that administration officials were apologizing to California Sen. Diane Feinstein for not giving her early notice of the deal, although they didn’t go so far as to apologize for breaking the law by not seeking Senate approval, probably because they knew that even the likes of Sen. Diane Feinstein would have balked at such a lopsided swap of five high-ranking terrorists for a deserter, and the apologists were working on a new narrative.
The best argument they’re likely to come up with is that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl might well by an anti-American crazy-pants deserter at best and traitor at worst, but that he’s ours and must be brought home to whatever fate awaits here even at the high cost of releasing dangerous terrorists. There might even be some merit to it, but it’s a hard to settle for after the high hopes of that story about the American hero being returned to the loving arms of his parents and proud hometown, especially after inviting an anti-American crazy-pants dad to recite Koranic verse at the podium with the presidential seal. Obama seemed pleased to be in Poland on Tuesday, where he looked very tough posing next to some F-16s that were intended as a stern warning to Russia’s Vladimir Putin or any other anti-American crazy-pants leaders looking to expand their territories. That’s a promising narrative, too, and the press might well get back on board for it, but Putin and the rest of them are probably more convinced by the sad story about the prisoner swap.

— Bud Norman

A Soldier Comes Home

Only the most hard-hearted won’t be happy that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will soon be coming home to his family after five years as a prisoner of Afghanistan’s Taliban, but only the most soft-headed won’t have worries about how it was accomplished. Soft-headedness being so much more prevalent among the American public these days than hard-heartendness, the happiness is bound to play better in the press than the worries.
Bergdahl’s release comes in exchange for the release of five very dangerous men currently being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, an arrangement of dubious legality, and is intended mainly to meet a pre-condition for negotiations with the Taliban that will likely lead to even more worrisome concessions. There are also questions about whether Bergdahl was a prisoner of war or a deserter, and ample reason to believe that he’s not the gung-ho soldier the script requires. None of this should cause any worry to the Obama administration, however, which will likely benefit from the inevitable news footage of the Sergeant and his mother embracing at last.
The emotions of that moment will be prominently displayed on the front page of every newspaper in the country and impossible to dismiss, while the potential carnage and heartbreak made possible by the release of five is less easily grasped and impossible to photograph. The Obama administration has always intended to empty Guantanamo Bay, and the return of lone American prisoner of the Afghanistan War provides an excellent opportunity to reduce its population of detainees by five. With the end of the war already scheduled to coincide with the next presidential election, regardless of conditions on the ground, the heart-touching photographs of a soldier back in his adoring hometown will be useful in the mid-terms. Should any of the released terrorists succeed in their stated goals of mass-murdering Americans, Bergdahl and the conditions of his release will be long forgotten and politely unmentioned by most of the media.
Any questions of legality should also be answered by that front page photo of the mother and child reunion. From Obamacare to the Mexican border to the bureaucrats of the Internal Revenue Service such niceties as the rule of law are routinely flouted, and few will insist on any sort of punctiliousness when the administration can claim with a straight face that after five years they had too short a time to comply with the law and still save Bergdahl’s life. That the law was intended to prevent the release of dangerous terrorists will be little noted for the reasons explained in the previous paragraph.
Nor will most of the public take notice that while the administration is declaring something akin to victory in Afghanistan it is opening negotiations with the enemy by making concessions. At this point the left that opposed the war from the beginning is willing to end it on any terms, the right that supported the effort has long since given hope that the current administration will see it to a successful conclusion, and the vast majority of those in the middle will be satisfied that they don’t have to hear about it anymore. The mother and child reunion will be the happiest memory of the war, and the only one that sticks.
If Bergdahl proves less than the heroic figure required for the role, they can always change the script. A man embittered by the futile war that George W. Bush started but but liberated from its captivity by the noble Obama who ended it will make a suitable narrative, no matter that Obama had also advocated the war and was running it at the time of Bergdahl’s capture. Even the most far-fetched story lines work when the visuals are so strong as a small town and a mother embracing a returning soldier.
Which is not to say that we’re so hard-hearted we won’t be a bit choked up when he’s back on American soil. We’re glad he’s coming home, and would advise any Republicans raising pertinent questions to make clear that they are as well. The cold calculations of war are unappealing, as as anyone who fell for the sappy sentimentalism of “Saving Private Ryan” should realize, and one should always make them with a realization of the humanity at stake, and not be indifferent to the emotion of a mother and child reunion. Still, those worries persist.

— Bud Norman