Bowe Bergdahl Is the Right’s New Benghazi

Buckle up: The right is going to try to turn the Taliban prisoner swap for ‘deserter’ Bowe Bergdahl into a Willie Horton moment for the president—and they’ll ride it to January 2017.

Pool photo by J.H. Owen

So let’s imagine that on Saturday night, the news had emerged not that Bowe Bergdahl was being freed but that he’d been murdered by his Taliban captors. What do you suppose we’d be hearing from Republican legislators? You know exactly what: Barack Obama is the weakest president ever, this is unconscionable. Which, of course, is exactly what we’re hearing from them now that the U.S. Army sergeant, held by the Taliban since 2009, has been freed. And it’s going to get worse. I’m even tempted to say forget Benghazi—Bergdahl may well end up being the flimsy excuse for the impeachment hearings they’ve been dreaming of before all this is over.

The Republicans’ audacity here is a bit beyond the usual. Let’s face it: There is no question that if President George W. Bush or a President McCain or President Romney had secured Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban prisoners at Gitmo, Republicans would be defending the move all the way. That business about notifying Congress? They’d have a dozen excuses for it. We got our prisoner of war home, they’d all be saying. That’s what matters.

But Obama does it, and Bergdahl’s freedom isn’t what matters at all. It’s that we negotiated with terrorists. Well, yes. We’ve been negotiating with the Taliban for a long time now, trying to end the war. See, they’re the people leading the fighting on the other side. When you’re trying to end a war, that’s generally who you negotiate with.

The five guys we returned to the Taliban are really bad guys, as Eli Lake and Josh Rogin wrote this weekend, and it’s fair to ask whether the price was too high. We can’t know the answer to that question today. But other criticisms are bogus. House intel chairman Mike Rogers said on TV Sunday that in cutting the deal, “you send a message to every al Qaeda group in the world that there is some value in a hostage that it didn’t have before.” That’s ridiculous. So al Qaeda groups didn’t know until this past weekend that taking an American hostage could give them leverage? Guerrilla forces have been taking people hostage since warfare began. We’ve even done lower-level prisoner trades in Afghanistan.

Looking forward, and looking more broadly at this situation, all the ingredients are here for a classic GOP Obama-conspiracy-mongering soap opera that can be dragged out until January 2017. The late combat journalist Mike Hastings wrote a long profile of Bergdahl in Rolling Stone in 2012, and it gets right to the heart of what may be the coming GOP case against him.

First of all, Bergdahl wasn’t any Republican’s idea of a patriot. Yes, he volunteered to join the Army, but only after he’d been turned down by the French Foreign Legion. Once on the ground in Afghanistan, he was a deeply disillusioned soldier. Shortly after his battalion took its first casualty, he emailed his parents a scathing indictment of the military and everything he saw around him. From Hastings:

“I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks … We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”

Bowe concluded his email with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is america is disgusting.”

He wandered away from his unit. A Fox News commentator called him a “deserter.” He is officially in good standing in the Army and has even received the promotions due him during his time in captivity, but some consider him a deserter and traitor. Get ready to start hearing more of that.

The argument will be made that he wasn’t worth saving, especially given what we had to give up. Hastings cites “White House sources” as telling him that Marc Grossman, Richard Holbrooke’s successor as AfPak coordinator, “was given a direct warning by the president’s opponents in Congress about trading Bowe for five Taliban prisoners during an election year. ‘They keep telling me it’s going to be Obama’s Willie Horton moment,’ Grossman warned the White House.”

Can Republicans make this resonate outside their base? Hard to say. I think to most Americans, this is a feel-good story. We value a life, one American life. Bibi Netanyahu traded one captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, not for five Palestinian prisoners. He traded Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. And there was broad agreement across the spectrum of Israeli politics that bringing Shalit to safety, even at that price, was the right thing to do.

But of course, that doesn’t matter to the right. No one outside their base cares much about Benghazi, but that hasn’t stopped them. They’ll keep pursuing Benghazi mostly to see if they can pin anything on Hillary, but when it comes to wet impeachment dreams, Benghazi may have just been pushed to the back seat. The crazy never stops.