Obama has justified his decision on the basis of precedent — other presidents have released prisoners as wars wind down — and on the principle that we don’t leave our people behind.
Equivalency is a fragile argument here. Bush’s wars and Obama’s drones are clearly not the same, though you might find those in Afghanistan or Pakistan who would argue otherwise. And George Washington’s release of British prisoners during the Revolutionary War can’t be compared to freeing Taliban warriors. Rather than returning home to reclaim their civilian lives, jihadists likely return even more resolved to continue a war that ends only after everyone on the planet converts to Islam.
What is often similar, however, is the moment of truth when a president has to make his own call because he thinks beyond any reasonable doubt that it is the right decision. History doesn’t always reward these decisions, but the titans of hindsight are usually compensated for style over content.
It is possible that some of the current criticism is tied to partisan pride as well as the opening of old wounds. Seeing the five bearded detainees was a vivid reminder of 9/11 and its chief perpetrator, Osama bin Laden. The sight of Bergdahl’s father, bearded and speaking Arabic and Pashto as he invoked Allah in the Rose Garden with the president, was both strange and creepy.