Susan Rice described the exchange of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay as part of a “sacred obligation” to leave no American solider behind. Bergdahl was the lone American prisoner of war, and as President Obama and his national security adviser have reinforced in recent days, this country’s role in the Afghan war is coming to an end, a deadline even set for a residual force to return home in 2016.
The president seized an opening to extract Bergdahl from the captivity he has endured for the past five years, his health reportedly in jeopardy, the likelihood slim that his release and the negotiated deal would affect the direction or outcome of the war. Here was a chance to restore a young man’s life and freedom.
That doesn’t mean the choice was easy, or that the president would escape controversy. His Republican critics pushed back hard over the weekend. They argued that the five former Taliban leaders might emerge later as a renewed threat. They added that the president has signaled to terrorist groups his willingness to deal, thus inviting the capture of other Americans abroad for additional prisoner swaps or ransom.
Critics also asserted that the president violated the restrictions Congress has placed on the transfer of detainees from the Guantanamo. The restrictions require that transfers serve national security, include steps to mitigate any future threat from those released and that the president notify Congress 30 days before any transfer. The White House admits it did not comply with the third requirement, arguing that circumstances required swift action.
The first requirement invites honest differences of interpretation. Concerning the second, Susan Rice cited “very specific assurances” from Qatar, which helped broker the deal, that the Taliban leaders would face travel restrictions and otherwise would be watched carefully.
The rule about “no negotiating with terrorists” is sound in the main. Yet it requires flexibility, too. Ronald Reagan negotiated with Iran over hostages. Israel has conducted prisoner exchanges with Palestinians. The relevant question is: In what context? For its part, Congress, in resisting transfers from Guantanamo, let alone the president’s pledge to shut down the prison, has prolonged the life of a facility that helps to fuel Islamic extremists.
Republican critics seek to portray the president as weak in countering terrorism. Yet the reality is, he has been vigilant. Consider his aggressive use of drones, complicated, unfortunately, by a dismaying lack of transparency. Then, there is the National Security Agency, again complicated by overreach. In his recent speech on foreign policy, the president proposed a Counterrorism Partnerships Fund, a sum $5 billion to strengthen the capacity of counties on the front lines in fighting terrorism. This would build on efforts already in motion, reflecting the persuasive thinking that it takes a network to overcome a network.
Listen to the discussion about the exchange involving Sgt. Bergdahl, and there is the suggestion that somehow the president could have gained it all, the release without striking a deal along the lines he did. That is not how these things work. A president often must choose among flawed options. In this instance, he rightly opted to recover an American prisoner, knowing that this country has at work many mechanisms aimed at combating terrorism.