Is Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's release a success story – or a scandal?

Out of America: It's the American way to make politics out of everything, and this is no exception

Share

Only in America. A US soldier held captive by the Taliban for five years is finally released. A moment, you might think, for national rejoicing. Instead, the affair is instantly transmuted into scandal and, for Republicans in Washington, becomes part of the case against Barack Obama and the Democrats – five months before mid-term elections in which they were already hoping to make substantial gains.

But is it a scandal at all? Here are the established facts: Private (now Sergeant) Bowe Bergdahl left his unit in Paktika province, eastern Afghanistan, in June 2009 and was captured by the Taliban; every effort to rescue him or to secure his release by negotiation failed, until 31 May when the President announced a deal for his return, in exchange for five former Taliban officials held at Guantanamo Bay.

The rest, to put it mildly, is murky. It has been suggested Bergdahl was a Taliban sympathiser, that he left his post in order to desert, or that he was in fact planning to return (according to some reports he'd "gone walkabout" twice before). Most serious perhaps, it has been claimed that six US soldiers lost their lives in the efforts to locate and free him. For the President's opponents, these allegations are already gospel. More of that in a moment.

First, two misconceptions about the affair must be disposed of: one is that America "never negotiates with terrorists". Please. Jimmy Carter negotiated with Iranians whom he called terrorists, for the release of the Americans taken hostage at the Teheran embassy in 1979. For seven years Ronald Reagan secretly negotiated with the same Islamic regime – in what would go public as the Iran-Contra affair – to secure the freedom of American hostages in Beirut.

Or take Bill Clinton, who in 1994 overrode the advice of Britain and his own State Department to entertain Gerry Adams, leader of the political wing of the IRA, which the US then formally designated a terrorist group. In that case, moreover, the consequences were wholly beneficial, hastening the entire Irish peace process. And, lest we forget, the Tory government of John Major at the time maintained its own backchannels to the IRA.

During the Iraq war, the administration of George W Bush reached out to Sunni militants who had killed American soldiers. Elsewhere, Israelis have dealt with Palestinian groups, and a Spanish government entered talks with the Basque organisation ETA. Negotiating with terrorists is a messy business, of unpredictable outcome. But the unspoken truth is that it is the norm, rather than the exception.

The second misconception is that the Americans gave away the store by exchanging five high-value Taliban officials to secure Bergdahl's freedom. By contrast, given that the Israelis have twice in recent years struck separate deals to free more than 1,000 Palestinians to recover a total of four captured soldiers, the price actually looks cheap.

Yes, the officials used to be important; but they were sent to "Gitmo" in its earliest days, and Afghanistan has moved on since 2002. The five are Taliban, not al-Qa'ida: were they to appear on the battlefield, drones would surely guarantee them a very brief life expectancy.

Bergdahl is released Bergdahl is released There are a couple of side-benefits as well. The US has never hidden its hope of a deal with the Taliban, if only to facilitate the final withdrawal of its own forces from Afghanistan, now set for 2016. The release of the five, brokered in part by Qatar, suggests that a channel exists to work for this end. And, last but not least, there are now five fewer detainees held without trial at that disgrace to America known as Guantanamo Bay.

This is not to say Obama has not put a foot wrong. Certainly, he was asking for trouble by not notifying Congress in advance, as he is required to for all transfers from Gitmo. The administration contends that, faced with evidence of Bergdahl's rapidly deteriorating health, it could not afford to wait.

The biggest blunder, though, was the celebratory White House photo-op with Bergdahl's parents to announce their son's release – even when it knew that the soldier's record wasn't spotless. Nor did it help when Bergdahl's father, Robert, looking like a convert to radical Islam with his long beard and hair, made some unscripted remarks in Urdu and Pashto. His motive was honourable enough – an attempt to understand the world in which Bowe was being held captive. Try telling that to hyperventilating Obama-haters, who have scented blood and some of whom demand impeachment, no less.

Bowe Bergdahl is released by the Taliban and handed over to Special Forces Bowe Bergdahl is released by the Taliban and handed over to Special Forces Trumping everything – not just for this president but for some conservative pundits as well – has been the sacrosanct principle that America moves heaven and earth to get back one of its own. "I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents," the President declared last week.

Not only liberals agreed with him. Supporters included Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, normally the most withering of Obama's critics, as well as the conservative-leaning David Brooks of The New York Times. Mistakes were made, the pair say, but basically Obama did the right thing. First you get your man back. If there is solid evidence Bergdahl is guilty of desertion or worse, then charge him and give him the opportunity to defend himself before a court martial. That is the American way.

But so too, in this hyperpartisan age, is to make politics out of everything. "The complicated nature of this recovery will never be properly comprehended," Robert Bergdahl said at the White House. But the politicians will not try to understand. What matters in the Bergdahl affair, as in the scandal revealed at veterans' hospitals, and the endless Benghazi embassy controversy, is to score electoral points. Naively you might think that Bowe Bergdahl has suffered enough, that it's time to move on. Alas, moving on is no longer the American way.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Copywriter / Direct Response Copywriter

£20k plus sales linked bonus. : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Copywriter to j...

Recruitment Genius: Accounting Technician

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has bec...

Guru Careers: 3D Creative Designer

Up to £26k DOE: Guru Careers: A Junior / Mid-Level 3D Creative Designer is nee...

Recruitment Genius: Ecommerce Website Digital Marketing Manager - Fashion / Retail

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You'll be joining a truly talen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jeremy Corbyn greeted by supporters in at a Labour leadership rally Camden, North London  

Labour leadership contest: Hard-left caricatures of Jeremy Corbyn are not fair or right

Richard Burgon
Edward Heath, pictured at his Albany flat in 1965, the year he became leader of the Conservative Party  

Edward Heath 'child sex abuse' allegation: Rumours always swirled about his sexuality - I’m sure that’s all they were

John Campbell
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen