Sometimes it is hard to believe Barack Obama has been living in the White House almost six years. Inconceivably, he still seems to get blindsided by an opposition that will do anything it can to disrupt his presidency. His latest misstep might be one of his worst: a troubled soldier, a questionable deal, heavy-handed tactics to pull the strings and, most unbelievably, the assumed faith of a grateful nation. Hindsight is not necessary; Obama looks like he has forgotten the lengths him political enemies will go to bury him and this time is appears he has gone out of his way to hand them a shovel.
The freeing of POW Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been a popular cause since his capture by the Taliban in 2009. The U.S. Army’s Warrior Ethos states “I will never leave a fallen comrade” and many have been outspoken in support of the soldier’s release. Notable names including Sarah Palin, Oliver North, John McCain, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe and publications such as the National Review and the Wall Street Journal.
But the circumstances of Sgt. Bergdahl’s disappearance and capture were murky from the beginning. Indications of desertion, a possible defection, and the death of soldiers involved in the search turned a simple narrative into something much more disturbing. Nonetheless, it was never a question: as a member of the armed forces it was the United States government’s obligation to secure his release.
So after five years of captivity, as Sgt. Bergdahl became a free man, the political bombs started raining down on his and the president’s head. What Obama seems to think was a major political victory instead looks like a tone-deaf defeat. Critics and the masses have been screaming that too much has traded away, that Bergdahl was not worth rescuing, that Obama has worked around Congress instead of with it, and that calling him a “hero” is grossly unjustified. Each and every one a valid, or at least debatable, point.
But in the much larger game being played between Obama and his political enemies, the finer points of the Bergdahl release are irrelevant, or at least only relevant as a means to bludgeon and deligitimize the Office. If Obama had somehow forgotten this lesson, the next few months will surely be a reminder.
The Right has a tight and, opinions to the contrary, vast and influential network of media outlets and among these outlets a narrative has been decided about the President, Bergdahl, his family, and his supporters. Former squad mates have been giving numerous high-profile interviews speaking out against Bergdahl, all organized by a PR firm run by a former G.W. Bush and Romney adviser. Conservative outlets have dropped almost all other news stories and gone on the attack, repeating the same themes over and over. Almost all complexities or ambiguities have ignored in order to present a simple and understandable narrative of desertion, lack of patriotism, and the supposedly verboten practice of ‘negotiating with terrorists.’
In terms of that charge, history holds no relief for the President. 30 years ago the Reagan Administration was caught selling arms to the Iran in order to free seven U.S. hostages in Lebanon. In 1985 the U.S. gave approval for Israel to release 700 Arab prisoners to secure the release of American hostages on a TWA flight. Because the current narrative is being driven by right-wing media, these and other examples of negotiating with terrorist groups are ignored in order to keep implying Obama is doing something unprecedented, unethical, or illegal. With few if any voices allowed on these media outlets to put current events into historical context, the prevailing narrative becomes set in stone.
By now this has to be old news to Obama. Since the moment he stepped into the Oval Office his every word, action, facial expression and round of golf has been spun in the worst possible light by enemies who desperately want him sent back to Chicago, or Kenya, depending on who you talk to. If nothing else, Obama at least seems to know how to stay one step ahead of the mob. But events of the last few days should give some pause. Does he really understand the optics of trading an allegedly troubled soldier for five Taliban criminals, and then calling him a hero? Has he forgotten that noble intentions count for nothing in politics? Are we seeing legitimate cracks in his presidency?
Unfortunately for Barack Obama, the last few days he has given his enemies exactly what they want- a cocksure president who seems blind to the political minefield that has always been in front of him.
Opinion by Andrew Elfenbein