Prisoner Swaps, U.S. vs. Israeli Style: Bergdahl and Shalit

Unequal trades: Shalit for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, and five Taliban thugs for the U.S. soldier. But the Bergdahl controversy can’t divert Republicans from deciding their strategy for U.S. foreign policy.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
Bowe Bergdahl (L) and Gilad Shalit (R)
Bowe Bergdahl (L) and Gilad Shalit (R)Credit: AP, Shalit family
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

It’s going to be some time before we know what really happened when Private Bowe Bergdahl went missing from his unit in Afghanistan and then fetched up as a prisoner, if that’s what he was, of the Taliban. But it’s not too early to say that this is shaping up as a major controversy, not only about Bergdahl’s own behavior —before his disappearance sent his family an email saying he was “ashamed to be an American” — but also about that of President Obama.

The thing to focus on is the presidential election of 2016.

Certainly the president’s preparedness to trade five of the worst Taliban prisoners in order to get Bergdahl back has infuriated some of the most distinguished figures in the American debate. This started with the allegation that the President violated federal law by failing to get clearance from the Congress before yanking from the Guantanamo prison in Cuba the Taliban thugs he traded for Bergdahl. “Did O Break the Law?” was the headline up on the Drudge Report.

The problem is that through the conservative constitutionalist prism, such a law is unconstitutional on its face — a theft of the authority of a commander-in-chief in a time of war. The Constitution’s grants the president enormous power in war. It is the only authority that President Abraham Lincoln ever cited as in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in the rebellious states in the Civil War. If the clause authorizes a president to free millions of slaves in a time of war, certainly it authorizes him to free his own prisoners from his own prison.

The more dangerous controversy for Obama is the judgment call over what sort of signal he has sent by treating with the Taliban. This seems destined to rival Benghazi as a marker of the administration’s diffidence in respect of the war. The fullest expression of this issue so far is from Ambassador John Bolton. He is out with a blistering op-ed piece warning that “swapping Bergdahl” for terrorists “signaled unmistakably to Taliban and al Qaeda that Obama is determined to withdraw from Afghanistan no matter what the cost.”

Far be it from me to quarrel with Bolton. I’ve been writing editorials supporting him going back all the way to when he was leading the effort of President George H.W. Bush to REPEAL the United Nations resolution declaring that Zionism is a form of racism. But our enemies in Afghanistan don’t have to parse the fine points of Obama’s prisoner swap to divine that the administration is bound and determined to retreat in Afghanistan.

The president and Vice President Biden have been making this clear for years in their public speeches. In the latest, delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point last weekend, the President told the graduating officers that they would be the first class since the outbreak of the war that is unlikely to be sent to fight in Afghanistan. When the new Afghan president accedes at the end of the year, he declared, our war there will be over. Even the New York Times found the speech “largely uninspiring.” But there it is.

In some ways the debate we are left with echoes the debates in Israel over the trade for, say, Gilad Shalit. There are some similarities. Both Shalit and Bergdahl were low-ranking enlisted men when they were seized by the enemy. Both were held five years. Both were promoted to sergeant while prisoners. Both were brought home through vastly disproportionate trades, in Shalit’s case the release of more than 1,000 enemy prisoners.

There are differences, too. Shalit was not disaffected from his country or cause, nor ashamed to be an Israeli. There was no question in Shalit’s case that he might have gone over to the other side. In the case of Sergeant Bergdahl, that question is at least muddy and potentially shocking. But it strikes me that the question of how Bergdahl behaved is one to be sorted out after he is rescued, not before. If every GI who dissented from the war in Vietnam were abandoned to the enemy, we’d have more holes in our ranks than a Swiss cheese.

So, the logic is to press for the unvarnished facts on Bergdahl while focusing on the strategic questions. I’ve been an Afghanistan war hawk from the beginning and still am, as I was — and am — a Vietnam hawk. But what is going to be the foreign policy of the Republicans in the coming campaign? Is it going to be a libertarian retreat or a neo-conservative resurgence? Or a campaign to reverse our declining military power? It’s going to be hard to throw Sergeant Bowe Baghdahl at any of these questions.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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