BRUSSELS — Defending the way he announced the exchange of imprisoned Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban fighters, President Barack Obama said Thursday that he could not give up the chance to save one more life in the waning days of the Afghanistan war.
“I think it was important for people to understand that this is not some abstraction,” Obama said, explaining why Bergdahl’s release was announced at a Rose Garden ceremony last weekend. “This is not a political football. You have a couple of parents whose kid volunteered to fight in a distant land who they hadn’t seen in five years and weren’t sure whether they’d ever see again.”
Speaking at a press conference here, Obama added, “I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child and that we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back.”
The fierce response to Bergdahl’s release from lawmakers and some members of the military has plunged Obama into an emotional and complicated debate over the burdens of war six months before the planned end of combat operations in Afghanistan. While Obama sees ending the conflict as a critical foreign policy achievement, he is also learning that many in the military are leaving Afghanistan still searching for clarity on what has been accomplished, and whether the fight was worth it.
For Obama, Bergdahl’s release was, according to aides, a relatively easy choice that brought home the last American prisoner of war. But some military officials see it differently and are especially furious that the White House greeted the release of someone suspected of desertion with the trappings of celebration. In addition to the Saturday Rose Garden ceremony revealing the swap, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said on television that Bergdahl had served with “honor and distinction.”
Members of his unit, which had been based in eastern Afghanistan’s mountainous and remote Paktika province, say Bergdahl deserted his post and some blame him for the deaths of soldiers there. The Army is investigating.
“We have a clear sense of the strong reactions within the rank and file,” said a senior military official, who asked for anonymity in order to speak frankly. “This is an emotional issue.”
The criticism from military circles comes amid a broader backlash, primarily along partisan lines, over the swap itself and how it was handled. GOP lawmakers say the administration failed to give them advance warning of the deal as required by law, and question whether the exchange was worth it given the danger the Taliban combatants could pose to U.S. troops once they are returned to Afghanistan next year.
“We knew that this action was going to be controversial and get a lot of attention, and that in 2014 everyone has an outlet,” said one White House official, who asked not to be identified to discuss internal deliberations. But given the military’s tradition of bringing back POWs, the official said, “we didn’t expect this level of vitriol.”
Duke University political science professor Peter Feaver, who served as a National Security Council special advisor under George W. Bush, said “the military drove the interpretation” of how many Americans and their representatives are reacting to the prisoner exchange.
“The deal the president struck is a deal you strike when the war’s over,” Feaver said in an interview. “The military, they’re thinking about, ‘We’re still fighting this war.’ For them the war’s very much still on, and the question of will we win or not is up for grabs.”
The president, by contrast, is now talking about Afghanistan in the past tense.
“This is what happens at the end of wars,” Obama said in Brussels. “That was true for George Washington; that was true for Abraham Lincoln; that was true for FDR; that’s been true of every combat situation — that at some point, you make sure that you try to get your folks back. And that’s the right thing to do.”
Obama also dismissed complaints from lawmakers as political posturing: “I’m never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington, all right?”
But Ralph Peters, a retired lieutenant colonel and intelligence officer, wrote in National Review that a “fundamental culture clash” exists between the president’s team and those in the armed forces, as reflected by Rice’s remarks on Bergdahl’s honor.
“Both President Obama and Ms. Rice seem to think that the crime of desertion in wartime is kind of like skipping class,” Peters wrote. “They have no idea of how great a sin desertion in the face of the enemy is to those in our military. The only worse sin is to side actively with the enemy and kill your brothers in arms. This is not sleeping in on Monday morning and ducking Gender Studies 101.”
In an interview with CNN Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Rice’s remarks were appropriate because the Idaho resident had volunteered to serve. “Sgt. Bergdahl put on the uniform of the United States voluntarily and went to war for the United States voluntarily,” Carney said. “That takes honor and is a mark of distinction.”
Past presidents have often treated confirmed deserters more harshly, even when they’ve been held prisoner. Charles Robert Jenkins spent four decades in North Korea after abandoning his post in the demilitarized zone. When he returned to the United States in 2004, he served nearly a month in the brig and failed to receive a welcome-home call from Bush. Pvt. Eddie Slovik — who left combat duty in France in 1944 — was shot by a firing squad after Gen. Dwight Eisenhower declined to grant him leniency.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has suggested that Bergdahl might be held accountable if military leaders conclude that he abandoned his unit. In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Dempsey said “it’s premature” to say Bergdahl would not face charges after returning home.
Eliot Cohen, a strategic studies professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who served in the State Department under George W. Bush, said Obama’s constant refrain about the costs of foreign entanglements has left the public wondering why the U.S. got involved in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“He simply gave up explaining a while ago what the stakes were,” Cohen said. “It’s not about what we’ve accomplished, it’s about, ‘I’m ending these wars.’”
Obama has also shied away from declaring victory, telling ABC News in 2009, “I’m always worried about using the word ‘victory,’ because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.”
Andrew Bacevich, an international relations and history professor at Boston University, said the bigger problem is that Obama is not willing to admit the U.S. has lost in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think that hovers in the background of any discussion of the war, of Bergdahl, of the exchange of five Taliban prisoners, of whether or not this soldier was a good soldier,” Bacevich said.