Opinion: The High Price of Obama’s Reckless Taliban Swap
The friends and family of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl are understandably happy and relieved that he is free from Taliban captivity after five years.
But we, as citizens, must nonetheless ask whether President Obama’s deal to obtain Bergdahl’s release — involving the exchange of five high-ranking, hard-core terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay — was, in fact, in the US national interest.
Despite Obama’s customarily exaggerated rhetoric, his agreement constituted a substantial setback for America both in the war against terrorism and for a wider world concerned about declining American power and resolve. Bergdahl’s release should be a fire bell in the night for Americans looking forward.
First, swapping Bergdahl for illegal enemy combatants (terrorists, in common parlance) signaled unmistakably to Taliban and al Qaeda that Obama is determined to withdraw from Afghanistan no matter what the cost to the United States or those in Afghanistan fighting to remain free.
Just days earlier, during his West Point graduation speech, Obama had again stressed that, no matter what the facts are on the ground, US forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016. If the terrorists still had even the slightest doubt that they needed only a minimal amount of patience to regain control in Kabul, Obama has done everything in his power to eliminate that.
He is surrendering in Afghanistan.
Second, it is despicable for an American president to equate a US servicemember with terrorist criminals such as those at Gitmo. This is the worst form of moral equivalence, the inexcusable mistake of equating two radically different kinds of people or policies.
In Cold War days, we were right to exchange spies with the Soviets, like for like. But to exchange soldiers for criminals as if they were fungible is moral equivalence that we should reject when the terrorists themselves offer it. For our own president to make that mistake is tragic.
Third, Obama tried to disguise his error by characterizing the exchange as consistent with our military tradition of leaving no US servicemembers behind. But Obama’s rhetoric is way off the mark, and the overwhelming majority of our warriors would reject it.
Our entire government has an obligation to protect all American citizens overseas.
If tomorrow, Taliban or al”‰Qaeda kidnapped a Foreign Service officer, or a missionary or a business person, would they not merit just as much concern as a servicemember? Of course. So despite Obama’s pretense, it is not alone Bergdahl’s status as a soldier that warrants some kind of special attention. He cannot legitimately appeal to military tradition to justify swapping Bergdahl for Gitmo detainees.
Finally, and most basically, it has long been America’s unwavering, bipartisan policy not to negotiate with terrorists, especially for the exchange of hostages. By trading to release hostages, we are invariably putting a price on the heads of other Americans.
Exchanging Bergdahl for five terrorists is functionally no different. The Reagan administration was wrong in Iran-Contra to deal for hostages, and it almost cost Reagan his presidency. It is equally wrong today.
Exchanging terrorists for Bergdahl reveals Obama’s not-so-hidden agenda: He is clearing the decks to withdraw remaining US forces from Afghanistan at the earliest possible moment, even before the end of 2016 if possible.
The Bergdahl deal is now history, but it nonetheless provides important lessons.
Clear-eyed presidents must put America first in national-security matters.
All of us as individuals are safer when our country and leaders are strong, and all of us as individuals are more at risk when they are weak. And today we are in ever-increasing danger because of weakness in the White House.
John Bolton is a former US ambassador to the United Nations. This article was originally published by The New York Post.