The first hint that Hillary Clinton didn’t want to tie herself to the spike-the-football strategy from the White House strategy for the Bowe Bergdahl swap could be described as a dog that didn’t bark. The former Secretary of State held her tongue for two days, and then only tepidly defended the deal in which Barack Obama traded five of the most dangerous men in Gitmo for the captive US soldier:
“This young man, whatever the circumstances, was an American citizen — is an American citizen — was serving in our military,” Clinton said. “The idea that you really care for your own citizens and particularly those in uniform, I think is a very noble one.” …
“You don’t want to see these five prisoners go back to combat. There’s a lot that you don’t want to have happen. On the other hand you also don’t want an American citizen, if you can avoid it, especially a solider, to die in captivity,” Clinton said. “I think we have a long way to go before we really know how this is going to play out.”
Translation: As choices go, this was certainly … one of them. Clinton was smart enough not to climb onto Obama’s bandwagon from the beginning, although one has to wonder whether that unannounced “private lunch” on the previous Thursday was an attempt to get her on board. (If so, it raises more questions about Obama’s failure to notify Congress about the release of the five Talibani.)
Forget the bandwagon analogy, and think of sinking ships instead. Within less than a day after that statement, “former officials” in the State Department were busy talking with The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin to explain that Hillary Clinton would have driven a much harder bargain than Obama, and even then may not have done the swap anyway:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was personally and intensely involved in the debate over swapping five Taliban commanders for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2011 and 2012. But she had severe reservations about the potential deal, and demanded stricter conditions for the release of the prisoners than what President Obama settled for last week.
Despite that the White House’s claim this week that the United States did not negotiate “directly” with the Taliban to secure the Bergdahl swap, the State Department, Defense Department, and White House officials did meet several times with Taliban leaders in 2011 and 2012 to discuss the deal. The negotiations, held in in Munich and Doha, fell apart in early 2012. But before they did, Clinton had a framework deal drawn up that was much tougher on the Taliban than what ultimately got done two years later.
Three former administration officials who were involved in the process told The Daily Beast that Clinton was worried about the ability to enforce the deal and disinclined to trust the Taliban or the Haqqani network in Pakistan, which held Bergdahl until this weekend. Clinton was so concerned, the former officials added, that she may not have even signed off if the negotiations had succeeded.
Hillary didn’t want to work with the Haqqani network at all, Rogin’s sources tell him, and didn’t like the idea of a swap for just Bergdahl. She wanted an end to all hostilities as a price for the release of the five Taliban leaders in Gitmo. In fact, that much is on the record from 2012:
In late 2012, Clinton spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the Bergdahl case was only one part of the overall effort to convince the Taliban to make peace. “We said within the reconciliation track… that his case was something that, in that track, could potentially be raised.”
In other words, this looks like a legitimate defense in regard to a serious split between Obama and Hillary during her tenure at State. It also appears as though the Clinton team is worried that this will stick to Hillary and that any future fallout from the release will do damage to her prospects, especially since her claim to executive expertise is necessarily tied to Obama’s foreign-policy outcomes. The fact that Team Hillary is aggressively staking out her position with this much distance on a key decision from Obama leaves the White House more isolated than ever.
The Hill reports that the Obama administration has belatedly begun to retract its arrogance:
The Obama administration has apologized for bypassing Congress before it released senior Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay as part of a controversial prisoner exchange.
The expression of regret was a major shift for the White House, which had previously offered a defiant defense on why it could not adhere to the notification provisions of a 2013 law. …
White House officials have changed their tone markedly over the past 48 hours after insisting they had nothing to apologize for.
This is an utter political disaster, and with the five Taliban leaders on the loose in Qatar, the political disaster is almost certain to be the least of American concerns over the long haul.