Ron Fournier offered an insightful analysis of the controversy over the swap that got the US back a captured soldier in exchange for five high-value Taliban leaders, two of whom are wanted by the UN for crimes against humanity. Barack Obama argued today that the US feels confident that these five men are no threat to the US any longer, and that we had a duty to get back a captured soldier regardless of the quality of his service. Fournier admits that he has no strong opinions yet on the deal, and postulates that any strong opinions on it largely reflect the confidence and trust one already had in Obama himself:
If you trust the president – if you buy his assurances about the U.S. capacity to monitor the terrorists and his resolve to take swift action – you’re likely to give him the benefit of the doubt on the swap. In your mind’s eye, you see a drone emblazoned with the names of five nasty Afghans.
If you don’t trust much of what Obama says or does, you’re likely to hate this deal because it depends so heavily on the president’s judgment.
If you’re ambivalent about Obama, the Bergdahl deal probably leaves you – perhaps uncomfortably alone among your family and friends – without a strong opinion.
Because of all the unknowns presently involved in this transaction, that’s likely to be true. However, the unknowns will eventually get unwound and factual data on this decision and its consequences will come to light. We’ve seen the beginning of that process now, and so far it hasn’t painted a very good picture of Obama’s credibility or that of his White House. They’ve mischaracterized Bergdahl’s status, his service record, their engagement with Congress, and blown most of the credibility and trust Fournier notes that Obama needs to carry this deal politically.
Eli Lake puts another nail into that credibility with another exclusive at The Daily Beast. Intelligence and defense officials tell Lake that the internal assessment of the threat posed by the five released Talibani never really changed, but that Obama just put people in charge who agreed with his own assessment instead. What resulted was a rushed and “forced consensus” that didn’t even take the time for proper analysis of the threat:
Panetta is gone, and in his place is Chuck Hagel, a Republican former senator who has been much more in sync with Obama’s views on the war on terror than his predecessors.
But current U.S. intelligence and defense officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on Monday say the process for exchanging Taliban for Bergdahl this time was rushed and closely held, in some instances leaving little room for any push back against a policy clearly favored by the White House.
“This was an example of forcing the consensus,” one U.S. military official said. “The White House knew the answer they wanted and they ended up getting it.” …
But the process for getting there was rushed, according to U.S. intelligence officials. This time around there was no formal intelligence assessment of, for example, the risks posed by releasing the Taliban commanders. While some intelligence analysts looked at the issue, no community-wide intelligence assessment was produced, according to these officials.
The one key difference in this effort was the involvement of the Qataris. Unlike previous efforts, Qatar offered to guarantee security with regard to the five detainees and prevent them from leaving the country. Their status will not really be a “house arrest,” as some have described it, as much as it will be a temporary exile/marooning. However, anyone who wished to come to Qatar to meet with the five will be under no particular constraints from doing so, which means that they can begin to reconnect and rebuild their networks from afar. They will also have no problem conducting propaganda operations, which won’t directly impact American security but may prove embarrassing to Obama as the details of this decision come out.
Fournier’s point echoes what I wrote today at The Week. This deal only works politically to the extent that Obama retains credibility. So far, that aspect has been nothing but disaster and unforced errors:
What price would America pay to regain its only POW? For some, no price would be too high regardless of the circumstances of the POW’s capture. For others, the possibility of desertion — and the lives it cost — make any significant price unthinkable.
Andrew Sullivan accurately referred to this as “an excruciating choice,” and “depressing” in light of the five high-ranking and dangerous Taliban figures released to get Bergdahl back. Most Americans probably fall somewhere in the middle, and would have had sympathy for those who had to make the call — had they approached the issue honestly.
Instead, the White House has continued its track record for disingenuous behavior and flat-out false rationales. …
Had Obama and the White House followed protocol, engaged Congress on the swap, and stuck with the core principle of bringing back captured Americans no matter how they ended up in enemy hands, they would have avoided much of the controversy. Instead, they once again exhibited arrogance toward Congress and tried finessing the narrative in a way that could not possibly stand up to scrutiny. The administration ended up with egg on its face, looking both incompetent and dishonest rather than torn on a legitimately tough call.
And not for the first time, either.