While Washington lawmakers try to make the prisoner swap authorized by President Obama into the next administration scandal, the president was unequivocal about his motivations in bringing home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban leaders held for more than a decade at Guantanamo Bay.
“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is: We don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” Obama said while in Warsaw during the first stop on his four-day European trip.
When the president was asked about the circumstances of the capture of Bergdahl by the Taliban—there have been allegations that he had been a deserter—Obama said nothing changes the responsibility to recover Bergdahl, the last American prisoner in Afghanistan.
“Regardless of circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American prisoner back,” he said. “Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.”
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it would be contrary to American national security,” Obama said. “This is what happens at the end of wars. That was true for George Washington. That was true for Abraham Lincoln … at some point you try to get your folks back.”
The president even acknowledged that some of the Taliban leaders could return to the fighting, as has been alleged by Republican critics.
“Is there a possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely,” Obama said. “That’s been true of all the prisoners that were released from Guantanamo. There’s a certain recidivism rate that takes place.”
As is usually the case when Obama makes an executive action, most of the congressional complaints center around the fact that the president didn’t give them the opportunity to quash his plans in advance.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) tore into the administration for failing to consult with Congress before sealing a deal that he said put U.S. diplomats and soldiers at risk.
“One of their greatest protections — knowing that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists — has been compromised,” he said.
Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.) raised the much-used possibility of congressional hearings, which would give Congress a chance to beat up on the administration.
“There is a lot here that doesn’t add up,” King said, according to the New York Daily News.
Military officials said the ethos of not leaving anyone behind was one of the bedrock principles of the American military.
“It’s more important than a paycheck or a medal,” said Gen. James N. Mattis, who from 2010 to 2013 led the military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan. The General told the New York Times that a horseshoe from the Bergdahl family home in Idaho hung outside his command’s operations center.
The Times revealed that the Joint P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Command employs 500 people to conduct global operations looking for more than 83,000 Americans still unaccounted for from past conflicts.
“The questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote on his Facebook page. “When he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty.”
“The Warrior Ethos is more than words, and we should never leave a comrade behind,” John M. McHugh, the secretary of the Army, said in a statement. “As Chairman Dempsey indicated, the Army will then review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sergeant Bergdahl to better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity.”
White House officials told the Times it was implausible to think of ending the war without taking the opportunity to recover him—and they knew how much they would be attacked if Bergdahl were killed by his captors.
“We don’t leave soldiers on the battlefield under any circumstance unless they have actually joined the enemy army,” John B. Bellinger III, who was the top lawyer at the State Department under President George W. Bush, told Fox News on Tuesday. “He was a young 20-year-old. Young 20-year-olds make stupid decisions. I don’t think we’ll say if you make a stupid decision we’ll leave you in the hands of the Taliban.”
Some observers are wondering how seriously to take the Republican criticisms of the swap when Republicans like Arizona Sen. John McCain and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte earlier this year spoke out in favor of the exact prisoner swap that Obama authorized.
In fact, just last week during Memorial Day, Ayotte urged Americans to keep Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl “in our thoughts and prayers,” adding, “I renew my call on the Defense Department to redouble its efforts to find Sergeant Bergdahl and return him safely to his family.”