Dealing for Bergdhal

USA_PFC_BoweBergdahl_ACU_CroppedSupporters and critics of the president’s decision to swap five Taliban commanders for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl have both become overwrought. This columnist has concluded that, on balance, the president was probably wrong, but neither side in this debate is wholly in the right.

Let us start with the president’s claim that this is what happens at the end of wars, and he is marching in the tradition of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. He meant Truman, as FDR led America into a global war but did not live (quite) long enough to see its end. Not only was the president confused as to the ending of the Second World War, he seems to have forgotten that the US was involved in another, longer, conflict more recently than that. There are many veterans still alive, including the man that the president beat in the 2008 election, who were prisoners of war in Vietnam. But if the president had included Truman and Nixon in his list it would not have sated his grandiose ego.

Ego aside, are the comparisons with Truman, Nixon and the rest valid? Not really. There was a PoW exchange at the end of WWII and after the Paris accords ended the Vietnam War because those wars were over. Germany and Japan both surrendered unconditionally. North Vietnam signed a peace treaty. But no-one thinks that the war against the Taliban or al Qaeda is over. The war against the Afghan government is, because the Taliban was driven from power 12 years ago, but the enemy survives. On some fronts it is heavily degraded but on others it is stronger than ever.

Is there a case for prisoner exchange at other times? Certainly this is the policy of Israel. So committed is the Israeli state to not leaving its PoWs behind that it agrees to some astonishing exchange rates, Israel once exchanged over 5,000 Egyptian prisoners for a single Israeli pilot.

The Reagan administration sold arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages held in Lebanon. France is usually prepared to deal with hostage takers, while other western countries are generally not.

Critics claim that the president acted illegally by releasing prisoners from Guantanamo Bay without notifying Congress. The president claims that he was acting under his powers as Commander-in-Chief, and that seems the stronger legal argument. He also claims he could not tell Congress as secrecy and urgency were both required by his interlocutors. They had threatened to kill Bergdahl. It is unlikely that such threats affect the question of whether or not the president had the power to make the deal, but making public the fact that he acceded to the Taliban’s demands as a result of the threats will encourage others to kidnap Americans and threaten to kill them.

Normally, there is a powerful case in terms of military morale to be made for acting to secure the release of prisoners of war, and even secure the return of bodies. This case may be different. Though Susan Rice described Bergdahl as having served with “honor and distinction” in the military this is more than mere boilerplate for anyone who served. There seems to be probable cause for charging Bergdahl with desertion, and comrades were lost seeking to rescue him. In this case, releasing dangerous enemies for his release may have actively damaged morale.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

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