Have you ever played chess? You know…the game that computers and various Russian masters have been battling over for decades to see which reigns supreme? In a chess match, making a move that trades one’s queen for a pawn is utterly disastrous. Neither Russian nor computer would make such a mistake. But Barack Obama, the US Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and principal architect of US foreign policy, effectively did just that when he traded Bowe Bergdahl for five senior Taliban leaders who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo since their capture in the early part of the last decade.
But in truth, Bowe Bergdahl is less than a pawn. He deserted his unit in Afghanistan. That much we know. Whether he was being held by the Taliban or simply given a home by the Taliban for expressing his anti-American sentiments is not yet clear. He wasn’t worth the trade. He wasn’t worth any trade. We shouldn’t have traded a Taliban grunt to get him back. And we certainly shouldn’t have shed a drop of American blood trying to rescue him after he decided he’d had enough as a cog in the US war machine and simply walked away. Here’s what Bergdahl said, in an e-mail to his parents, before he deserted his comrades, from an expose written by Michael Hastings (now deceased) for Rolling Stone magazine in 2012:
“I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP [mine-resistant ambush protection vehicle]. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks. . . . We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”
Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is america is disgusting.”
I understand Bergdahl’s sentiments. I felt in a similar way about the first Gulf War in which I served. But when I entered active duty, the Cold War was flaring hot all over the globe, particularly in Central America where I spent a good deal of my time. The Soviet Union was an existential threat to the US. It could have destroyed us. And so I gladly served on the vanguards of the American sphere of influence to prevent such a thing. I wanted for the US to continue to exist. But it was beyond my contemplation that the US would win the war in four short years after I entered service, and then turn all the big boy toys it had purchased for the hot war that never came to an internecine dispute among Arabs over who would own Kuwait’s oil riches. I do not believe in killing people who aren’t trying to kill me, or who are no threat to the country I am sworn to defend. So I was none too happy with the change in geopolitical circumstances that forced me to again take up arms. But I did my duty and when the war concluded, got out. I did not desert my post and become a member of the Iraqi Republican Guards. And if I had, I would certainly not have expected the US military to rescue me. But Bergdahl had to have known that fighting and killing Afghanis would be exactly what was expected of him when he enlisted. The war was already engaged by the time he signed up. He couldn’t have just arrived there thinking he was defending an existential threat to apple pie and baseball and ice cream. The US was there to flex its imperial might, ostensibly to prevent another 9-11 attack, but really just to show the Taliban and everyone else what happens to people who brazenly give aid and comfort to people who hate us.
If it is possible to be both cynical and naïve, Obama’s swap of Bergdahl is perhaps a perfect example. The highly publicized circumstances of Bergdahl’s “rescue” points to a cynical attempt to garner good publicity regarding the treatment of American soldiers, undoubtedly to counteract all the bad publicity the Administration has recently received over mismanagement of its healthcare obligations to its veterans (the Veteran’s Administration scandal). There was Obama, holding a press conference where he trotted out the deserter’s rather strange parents, particularly the dad, who was sporting a Duck Dynasty beard because he hadn’t cut it since his son became a member, er, was captured, by the Taliban. (Don’t Islamists prohibit the shaving of facial hair? Was this perhaps a show of political solidarity with his son?) The prisoner swap seemed to have been conducted solely for the purpose of domestic politics; a lame attempt to enhance Obama’s power and prestige at home that backfired miserably. Obama is cynical and manipulative when it comes to maintaining his power with the American public. There is no other way to explain Benghazi, the IRS scandal, and now this.
But he is either profoundly naïve, or stupid, or malevolently aloof about foreign affairs. What might our foreign adversaries be thinking about a leader who agrees to swap a queen for a pawn on the chess board of international relations? That he is a very bad player, no doubt. Vladimir Putin, for one, has surely taken notice. But chess is only a game. In the arena of foreign relations, real lives and real societies are at stake. The international arena is a Darwinian jungle. Nations, red in tooth and claw, battle constantly for survival and supremacy. Making a deal like the Bergdahl swap leaves our enemies licking their chops and our allies shuddering in fear.
The world is today a much more dangerous place because Barack Obama made an extraordinarily bad deal in swapping Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders. That’s really all there is to it.