Four months ago, Senator John McCain said he would support the exchange of five hard-core Taliban leaders for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
“I would support,” he told CNN. “Obviously I’d have to know the details, but I would support ways of bringing him home and if exchange was one of them I think that would be something I think we should seriously consider.”
But the instant the Obama administration actually made that trade, Mr. McCain, as he has so often in the past, switched positions for maximum political advantage. “I would not have made this deal,” he said a few days ago. Suddenly the prisoner exchange is “troubling” and “poses a great threat” to service members. Hearings must be held, he said, and sharp questions asked.
This hypocrisy now pervades the Republican Party and the conservative movement, and has even infected several fearful Democrats. When they could use Sergeant Bergdahl’s captivity as a cudgel against the administration, they eagerly did so, loudly and in great numbers. And the moment they could use his release to make President Obama look weak on terrorism or simply incompetent, they reversed direction without a moment’s hesitation to jump aboard the new bandwagon.
The last few days have made clearer than ever that there is no action the Obama administration can take — not even the release of a possibly troubled American soldier from captivity — that cannot be used for political purposes by his opponents.
Though we criticized the administration for ignoring the law in not informing Congress of the transfer of the Taliban detainees 30 days in advance, leave it to Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and other hyperventilators to claim that continued release of prisoners from Guantánamo without prior notice is now considered an impeachable offense, a ludicrous leap.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas says the whole exchange was cooked up to distract the public from the Veterans Affairs scandals, and the talk-show crowd has piled on Sergeant Bergdahl’s father for his suspiciously long beard.
Cowering politicians now even seem to regret their initial burst of joy that a prisoner was coming home. “A grateful nation welcomes him home,” said Representative Lee Terry, Republican of Nebraska, in a Twitter message on Sunday. The statement on his website was deleted a short time later. “Warmest regards to his family with gratitude for his/their service and sacrifice,” wrote Representative Stephen Lynch, Democrat of Massachusetts, in another quickly deleted tweet.
This duck-and-cover response is the result of the outrageous demonization of Sergeant Bergdahl in the absence of actual facts. Republican operatives have arranged for soldiers in his unit to tell reporters that he was a deserter who cost the lives of several soldiers searching for him. In fact, a review of casualty reports by Charlie Savage and Andrew Lehren of The Times showed there is no clear link between any military deaths and the search.
And a classified military report shows that Sergeant Bergdahl had walked away from assigned areas at least twice before and had returned, according to a report in The Times on Thursday. It describes him as a free-spirited young man who asked many questions but gave no indication of being a deserter, let alone the turncoat that Mr. Obama’s opponents are now trying to create.
If anything, the report suggests that the army unit’s lack of security and discipline was as much to blame for the disappearance, given the sergeant’s history.
Thousands of soldiers desert during every war, including 50,000 American soldiers during World War II. As many as 4,000 a year were absent without leave for extended periods during the Iraq war. They leave for a variety of reasons, including psychological trauma, but whatever their mental state, it is the military’s duty to get them back if they are taken prisoner. That’s what the Obama administration did in this case, and there was a particular sense of urgency because a video showed that Sergeant Bergdahl’s life might be in danger.
But the critics seeking political advantage don’t care about the life or mental state of a particular soldier, or of a principle of loyalty that should provide comfort to any soldier in danger of capture. They live only for the attack.