Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization.
President Obama’s exchange of 5 high-ranking Taliban murderers for a soldier who possibly was a deserter and collaborator encapsulates everything that is wrong with this administration’s foreign policy. The serial failures of the past 5 years reflect a toxic brew of partisan politics and naïve ideology.
The staging of the announcement last Saturday in the Rose Garden obviously was intended to milk every drop of photogenic pathos and political gain from a decision rife with moral hazard and questionable legality. To reap political advantage from this disaster of a deal, lies and half-truths were necessary for creating the narrative behind the picture of Obama flanked by Bergdahl’s joyful, if somewhat bizarre, parents. Contrary to the president and his supporters, Bergdahl was not a “hero” or “prisoner of war.” Nor had he served with “honor and distinction,” or been “captured on the battlefield,” as the terminally mendacious Susan Rice said on a Sunday morning news-show.
In fact, evidence continues to mount that Bergdahl voluntarily left his post to connect with English-speaking Taliban, a move consistent with his renunciation of his citizenship and disgruntled anti-American emails. Whether he is just a flake, as his earlier biography and strange comments suggest, or had more sinister motives will become clearer as more information surfaces. He may even be a traitor. His team leader on the night he disappeared, former Army Sergeant Evan Buetow, has told CNN that radio intercepts revealed that Bergdahl was looking for the Taliban, and that after his capture, the Taliban’s attacks on Americans became “far more directed.”
The serious questions about Bergdahl were known to the administration, if only from a 2012 Rolling Stone article. Yet consistent with Obama’s foreign policy approach, facts are never an impediment to political advantage, as his record shows. The Benghazi disaster was created by politics and covered up for political reasons. Beefing up security for the diplomatic mission was nixed because it contradicted the political narrative that the multilateral “leading from behind” removal of Ghaddafi had started Libya on the road to Jeffersonian democracy and peace, when in reality it had unleashed hundreds of feral jihadists gangs now armed with missiles and other weapons. Likewise blaming the attack on an obscure video rather than an al Qaeda franchise reinforced the “al Qaeda on its heels” and “bin Laden dead” memes peddled during the presidential campaign in order to prove the success of Obama’s anti-Bush foreign policy.
So too the Bergdahl weeper is another episode in the “end the wars and bring the troops home” political narrative demonstrating the superiority of “collective action” and “diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action,” as Obama said at West Point, over George Bush’s alleged trigger-happy, blood-for-oil, Halliburton-enriching unilateralism. Just don’t think about the 6 soldiers who died looking for Bergdahl, or the violation of legal protocols for releasing Guantanamo detainees, or the dismissal of the concerns of the intelligence community, or the snubbing of Congress in making the deal, or the moral hazard of paying ransom to hostage-takers. Never mind that under Obama’s watch Iraq is once again an inferno of sectarian violence and is fast becoming a satellite of Iran. Just forget that the Taliban, given a date-certain for our withdrawal, are poised to reassert control over large swaths of eastern Afghanistan, squandering the sacrifices made by our troops. Those facts must be obscured in order to achieve a political advantage. So too the enormous risk to our soldiers’ lives and our national interests that attends the release of 5 battle-hardened jihadist murderers does not figure in political calculations for firing up the base ahead of the midterm election.
Politics may be all there is to Obama’s foreign policy. With some justification, he may calculate that despite a few occasional bleats of protest, the ovine press corps will always watch his back and deliver the political dividends his actions seek. The scandal of Benghazi––both the incompetence that lead to 4 dead Americans, and the blatantly dishonest cover-up afterwards––that unfolded a few months before the 2012 elections should have put his reelection at risk. Yet with an indifferent press corps downplaying the story, and partisan hack Candy Crowley watching his back during the presidential debates, the worst scandal of his presidency had no effect on the election. So we shouldn’t be surprised that team Obama thinks this latest shameless political stunt will work too. As Guy Benson at Townhall.com analyzes the Obama crew’s thinking, “They figured that the feel-good nature of the ‘POW’ returning home narrative would be blindly seized upon and enabled by a media exhausted by the egregious VA scandal story. Unpleasant details would be whitewashed or mostly ignored, and the only real outrage would emanate from the usual suspects on the Right. They thought they could counter critiques of the nature and terms of the trade with faux-indignant questions about whether skeptics were in favor of ‘leaving Americans behind.’” In short, the White House’s political modus operandi on every bonehead decision for the past 5 years.
Yet there is also an ideology behind Obama’s foreign policy, one shared by most progressives. This naïve view assumes the whole world is just like us, wants freedom, human rights, leisure, and prosperity as much as we do, and is kept from achieving those boons by environmental forces, lingering superstitions like religion, and the fallout from historical crimes most of which have been committed by the West. Thus it assumes America’s guilt and need to atone for its neo-colonial and neo-imperialist sins, and its racism, plunder of resources, and militarist adventurism, the very attitude struck in Obama’s infamous 2009 Cairo speech. Then follows the imperative for American withdrawal and retreat, a dangerous dereliction of global duty rationalized with the magical thinking of “international law,” “engagement,” “multilateralism,” “smart diplomacy,” “sanctions,” “international pressure,” and all the other camouflage for an unwillingness to make the tough, risky choices necessary in a hard world of bad men. This ideology bespeaks a monumental failure of imagination, and a parochial inability to understand that different peoples and cultures have different mores and goals.
Every one of Obama’s foreign policy debacles reveals this shopworn idealism. It explains the impulse to rely on negotiations and concessions with enemies like Iran, who only yield at the point of a gun; the reliance on bluster and bluff with killers like Bashar al Assad, who can read every tell announcing a weak hand; or the feeble threats of disapproval from an international community issued to Vladimir Putin, whose past brutal behavior in Chechnya and Georgia shows that he cares nothing for the estimation of some imagined “international community” that still wants to buy his oil. And now comes Obama’s absurd claim that releasing 5 seasoned killers will “open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground.” That Obama thinks the Taliban––who brutally murdered their own people in a soccer stadium, stone homosexuals, throw acid in the face of schoolgirls, honor-kill their own wives and daughters, and blow up women and children–– can have any “common ground” with anyone not sharing their barbarous religious ideology is profoundly delusional.
As the Bergdahl fiasco shows yet again, partisan politics and bad ideas make for a world dangerous to our interests and security.
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