WASHINGTON — The exchange of five Guantanamo detainees for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has reminded us of three unpleasant facts of life:
The United States does negotiate with terrorists; the president will circumvent laws as circumstances require; Republicans and Democrats will be summarily outraged as party affiliations seem to require.
We might also add that processes will be “truncated,” as President Barack Obama described the exchange, and these are “hard choices,” as Hillary Clinton put it, cleverly employing the title of her new book.
Which is to say, war is tricky and we have no idea what we’re willing to do until the ball is in our court.
It is easier now to wish we had not invaded Iraq, given the absence of weapons of mass destruction. But in the wake of 9/11, when the Western world was convinced that Saddam Hussein had WMD, eliminating a destabilizing force in the region seemed to many a viable strategy.
It seemed so to then-Sen. Clinton, who voted for the resolution to use military force against Iraq, but not to Obama, then an Illinois state senator who didn’t have to decide.
As president — how time flies — Obama has followed through on his campaign promises to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but not to close Guantanamo. Promises are sometimes harder to keep when the facts are in your face. Obama also has increased drone “warfare,” eliminating enemies as well as civilians and at least one American citizen deemed to be a combatant without, shall we say, due process.
So yes, he is the nonwar president, except ... and he follows the law and protects the Constitution, unless ... and he wants to close Guantanamo, but encountered the same daunting obstacles that George W. Bush did.
Yes, yes, Bush created the problem. Noted. To the point of this column, however, when Obama was faced with whether to release prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl, he was forced to make an executive decision. And yes, he sidestepped the law requiring 30 days’ notification to Congress, but the law’s timetable was untenable given the reportedly narrow window of opportunity. Whether the president indeed had been discussing the possibility with Congress remains a matter of dispute.
A top GOP aide confirmed to me that no such discussion took place before last week’s exchange and that when the idea was floated more than two years ago, it met with strong bipartisan opposition from congressional leaders.
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 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.
Obama critics naturally saw the president’s mouth tip in a smile, though it could be interpreted as a grimace. What was he to do, grab the microphone? Stare grimly at a father announcing the release of his boy after five years in captivity?
There is nothing trivial about these events, but the questions raised are, nonetheless, “Homeland”-ishly intriguing: Did Bob Bergdahl convert to Islam? Did his son? Did Bowe Bergdahl abandon his post as fellow soldiers claim? Is he a traitor?
Until the Army provides answers, we’ll have to make do with speculation. Meanwhile, the only question that required an immediate response was, did the U.S. want Bergdahl back and what were we willing to trade?
This was indeed a hard choice — and the answer had to be yes.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.