Obama's Bergdahl Strategy Underestimated America's Complicated Relationship with War

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There are two theories on how the mostly conservative backlash to the Bowe Bergdahl trade will play out: conservatives will alienate most Americans, or Americans will continue to have a complicated, messy relationship with war. The Obama administration believes that if it lets Fox News draw this out, the network and other conservative outlets will eventually alienate Americans, reminding them that no soldier left behind is a "sacred rule." The other theory, laid out in Time's cover story, is that Bergdahl's homecoming, like the Afghanistan war, was too complicated to be a feel-good moment. 

President Obama said on Thursday he wasn't surprised by the backlash over trading prisoner of war Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five members of the Taliban. But, according to Politico, he also didn't expect questions of Bergdahl's alleged desertion to be the focal point. The White House's new strategy is to "frame the criticism as another example of Republicans complaining about something just because Obama was the one to do it," according to Politico. The White House knew about and has been looking into claims that Bergdahl deserted, but didn't see leaving him as an option. They think popular opinion will follow them. “I think the principle of leaving no man behind will ultimately prevail,” White House spokesperson Eric Schultz told Politico. 

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Greg Sargent at The Washington Post added Thursday that the White House knows that conservatives will continue to turn this into the new Benghazi, "but they believe the Conservative Entertainment Complex will veer into over the top attacks that will alienate the broader public, which won’t see the basics of the situation in such lurid terms." In other words, "the White House is placing its bet on Da Crazy." 

The thing is, "da crazy" is only amplifying concerns that have been around for years. Obama's mistake was trying to pull a feel-good moment out of the war. "Maybe it was inevitable that even this familiar end-of-war set piece, the tearful return of the last prisoner, would sour, given the division and suspicion sown at home by the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," Time's David Von Drehle writes. Von Drehle gives an overview of the debate on how to bring Bergdahl back and touches on the resentment and suspicions held by his fellow soldiers, first detailed in 2012 by the late Michael Hastings at Rolling Stone

Yes, Obama's political enemies are using the story against him, with increasingly ridiculous theories, but he "further erred by trying to spin a feel-good story from a messy set of facts," Von Drehle writes. The Von Drehle theory argues that Bergdahl's theory symbolizes too many loose ends, including our disillusionment with the violence in Afghanistan, and the questions of what to do about Guantanamo Bay and its prisoners. "The inescapable truth is that the U.S.’s departure from Afghanistan will not bring an end to the storms of that region, nor shield us from their effects," he writes. Likewise, there was no way to make people happy on the Bergdahl trade: either he would have been traded for five Taliban members, or he would have died in captivity.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.