Robert Ehlert: Deal for Bowe Bergdahl was Obama's best option

rehlert@idahostatesman.comJune 6, 2014 

The war in Afghanistan is where candidate Barack Obama wanted the focus redirected as he campaigned for the presidency in 2008. Once elected, he followed through and took steps to staff and equip that conflict.

Since George W. Bush has been occupied with riding his bike, shoring up his presidential library and painting for the past five years, there is no hanging Afghanistan on him. This is Obama's war.

A young man from Hailey, Bowe Bergdahl, joined up and trained to be a paratrooper on Bush's watch in 2008. But it was Obama who put Bergdahl to work in Afghanistan in 2009. The frustrating Hatfield and McCoy conflict in those Third World hills and villages is where Obama had decided the fight was.

Sometime around June 30, 2009, the saga of Bergdahl took an unexpected turn into a tunnel of mystery that would be five years long and counting. We know Bergdahl walked away from his unit and was discovered missing over the next 72 hours. We know that soon after he fell into enemy hands.

Thus began the longest stretch of an American serviceman held as a prisoner of war in this young century.

The commander in chief of the war in Afghanistan may or may not have been briefed about Bergdahl's capture when he made his July 4, 2009, address to the nation. Sans gray hair, Obama nonetheless looks beleaguered on the YouTube video. Besides managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was under attack on the domestic front: defending an $840 billion stimulus package and increasing the national debt in order to right a listing economy; weathering political unrest from a growing tea party movement over fiscal policies and a penchant for appointing czars; pushing a health care overhaul called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Obama would survive all these things and be re-elected in 2012. As he started his second term, Bergdahl was still captive - for so long, in fact, he had been promoted up two grades, from private first class to sergeant.

Last weekend, the commander in chief of the war in Afghanistan made a call to swap five Taliban warriors with unsavory ties to some of our chief international enemies for Sgt. Bergdahl, the soldier who walked away from Obama's war.

In his effort to bring home the longest-held POW, and to uphold the sacred charge to bring back all U.S. troops whenever possible, Obama exposed his humanity at the possible cost of his legacy. He will forever be known as the president who gave up five sworn enemies in the Afghanistan war for a captive U.S. soldier who faces untold military inquiries into his actions - and potential imprisonment in his homeland.

On Thursday, the unapologetic commander in chief stood by his decision: "We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated and we were deeply concerned about, and we saw that we had an opportunity and we seized it, and I make no apologies for that." The word leaking out of a "closed" Senate briefing Wednesday on Bergdahl is that the White House had begun to fear for Bergdahl's life during negotiations to free him.

I, like many, struggle with aspects of Obama's prisoner swap decision.

But I struggle even more coming up with an alternative. Beyond the second-guessing, I hear no bright ideas from Obama's legions of bipartisan detractors - many of whom are in re-election posture.

They welcome the idea that Sgt. Bergdahl is back in American hands while they regurgitate and vacillate on the method.

In the military there are mantras: "Make a decision" and "bring back the troops" come to mind.

Whether he was unduly influenced by the fact that this was his war and his POW - or for whatever other gut-check reason - Obama made the call.

We and this very same president, who receives credit from some for hunting down Osama bin Laden, will have to live with any consequences of the Bergdahl deal.

But doing nothing was no longer an option.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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