Here's What Happens When You Play Politics with the Bergdahl Swap

What if the White House had chosen a low-key announcement of the Bowe Bergdahl swap?

National Journal

The best measure of whether President Obama cut a smart deal to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is what happens to the five Guantanamo Bay terrorists he traded away. Do they go (a) into retirement; (b) into battle against the United States; (c) or into five cold graves?

The rest of what you're hearing about the swap is politics "“ thinly disguised as a legal and foreign policy debate. Unless you can predict the future, the smart move on such a complex story is to avoid an absolutist position.

Here's what happen when you don't:

The White House has undermined its credibility "“ again "“by confusing governing with campaigning. It was no secret that the Taliban's capture of Bergdahl was complicated by evidence that he abandoned his unit. Many people in government long considered the soldier a deserter or traitor. Still, the United States had a moral obligation to seek Berghdal's freedom and a national security imperative to get him into the military justice system, where any complicity with the Taliban would be exposed, mitigated and punished. Little about the case was unambiguous.

All too typically, White House officials dismissed the grays and painted a black-and-white picture, one with a front-and-center pose for their hero-president.

  • National Security Adviser Susan Rice declared on ABC's "This Week" that Bergdahl served with "honor and distinction," an eyebrow-raiser that evoked memories of her Benghazi talking points fiasco.
  • Bergdahl's parents were summoned to a Rose Garden ceremony that only a laughably incompetent communications team wouldn't recognize as a public relations risk.
  • The White House failed to notify Congress in advance of the swap, as required by law. Presidential aides called it an "oversight." Overlooking something as basic as a congressional head's up? It's hard to believe that senior presidential advisers could be that incompetent, but the only other alternative is that they're lying.

What if the White House had chosen a low-key announcement of the swap, pledging in a written statement to get to the bottom of Bergdahl's conduct while keeping gun sights on the free terrorists? No spin. No celebrations. No ammunition for the GOP. My guess: This would be a 48-hour story, not a mushrooming political fight.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5004) }}

The Republican Party looks hypocritical, and risks overreaching "“ again. Many Republicans have been pressuring the White House to secure Bergdahl's release, knowing the most likely route would be via a prisoner swap. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the failed 2008 GOP presidential nominee, told CNN in February that he "would be inclined to support" an exchange of prisoners with the Taliban under the right circumstances. He is now condemning the Bergdahl deal, calling these the wrong circumstances.

Then there are the GOP news-whisperers. Buzzfeed reported Tuesday that a former adviser to President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney played a key role in publicizing Bergdahl's critics in the military.

The involvement of Richard Grenell, who once served as a key aide to Bush-era U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton and later worked for Romney's 2012 campaign, comes as the Bergdahl release has turned into an increasingly vicious partisan issue.

The New York Times reported that "Republican strategists" had arranged an interview for them with men who served in Afghanistan with Bergdahl, who was released after five years of imprisonment by the Taliban in a controversial prisoner swap deal. In the article, the men express their anger at Bergdahl for leaving the base, causing other soldiers to risk their lives looking for him.

The same soldiers also did interviews with The Weekly Standard, the Daily Mail, the Wall Street Journal, and Fox News.

Cody Full, one of the soldiers quoted in the New York Times and other stories, tweeted yesterday about Grenell: "I want to thank @richardgrenell for helping get our platoon's story out." Grenell retweeted the tweet, calling Full a "true American hero."

Are there any straight shooters in Washington? In the 24 hours since I warned against politicizing this situation ("What Your Opinion About the Bergdahl Swap Says About Your Views Toward Obama"), both parties reverted to course. Republicans and Democrats are stuck in perpetual campaign mode, treating big national problems like election campaigns, where results are by nature a zero-sum game: total victory or total defeat. Governing, when done right, is not so clean.

RELATED: "What Your Opinion About the Bergdahl Swap Says About Your Views Toward Obama"