For the GOP, human beings are political pawns, to be used in their game of "which Americans can we harm to reap the most political capital." Never has this agenda been more pronounced - nor more reprehensible - than the attacks from the right on Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier released from Taliban captivity in a swap for five Gitmo detainees. Though questions remain about how Sgt. Bergdahl was captured - did he wander off on his own, was he a deserter, was he really trying to walk to India, unarmed, through enemy territory? - for some inexplicable reason, Republicans have turned the swap on its head: Bergdahl may have been a bad soldier, therefore maybe the swap shouldn't have been made, or, barring that, it could have waited the 30 days to notify Congress. And the GOP has gone even further, with attacks on Sgt. Bergdahl's father, Bob Bergdahl - a quiet, thoughtful man - who, they claim, must be a terrorist sympathizer because, well, something.
But of all the ways in which the GOP has tried to make political hay since President Obama was elected, this attack on an American POW who might be this or might be that - before any real facts are before us - is the one most likely to backfire. Sure, maybe the terms of the swap, and the fact that Congress was left out of the loop, is a topic worth debating. But for Republicans to insist that President Obama should have left Sgt. Bergdahl to languish an additional 30 days, after the deal was cut, in order to notify Congress is a petty detail to focus on when this young soldier's life was at stake.
Some Republicans may be getting a sense that they've overreached on this one. Fox commentator and Republican heavyweight Charles Krauthammer came out in favor of the swap, saying that he would have made the same decision, and that because the U.S. places a high premium on human life "that the ones at the other end of the table don't, we always end up with unequal swaps."
Fox commentator Juan Williams, in a rare emotional display, criticized Republicans for their "craven" use of Sgt. Bergdahl as a political pawn:
"America should be loving this child at this moment . . . Obviously we don't know why he left. We think he's a troubled person. We think he may have lost a sense of America's mission. All true. But the idea is we don't leave people in the enemy's hands. The enemy saw him as an American soldier. That young man suffered. He was caged, Chris. His parents suffered. And yet people want to argue about the father's beard. They want to say they shouldn't have a parade. Let the military decide. The military's in the best position, not us sitting here on this panel, and not all the political people on the Republican side who have flip-flopped -- flip-flopped, Chris, in the most craven way. Unbelievable."
In Sgt. Bergdahl's home state of Idaho, Idaho Republican Raul Labrador, said,
"I'm a little bit disturbed by some of the Republicans out there who keep saying this has never happened before. That is not entirely true. If you look historically, at the end of any conflict, you have a swap of prisoners, and that happens. Usually our side will release people that are less than desirable in order to get some of our people back in these swaps. So I would suggest that anybody who's being hyper-critical about this, they should look at the history. This has happened before . . ."
Labrador has also been perturbed by the vicious attacks on Sgt. Bergdahl's father:
"I see all these comments about what his father has said and done. It's very difficult to judge a father who's going through this kind of experience. I don't think we should be judging Bowe by some of the actions of his father, by some of the comments of his father. Because his father was just trying to get his son home. And as you know, any father would do whatever they can to get their son home in a situation like this . . . ."
John Bellinger, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, agrees that President Obama did the right thing in recovering Bergdahl, primarily because when wars wind down, prisoners of war are released anyway - which would have included the five Gitmo detainees released in the swap.
"We don’t leave soldiers on the battlefield under any circumstance unless they have actually joined the enemy army . . . He was a young 20-year-old. Young 20-year-olds make stupid decisions. I don’t think we’ll say if you make a stupid decision we’ll leave you in the hands of the Taliban . . . Sometime in the next couple of years, whether it's in the beginning of 2015 or shortly thereafter, this conflict in Afghanistan is winding down, and we would be required, at least under the traditional laws of war, to return people that we've detained in that conflict . . . So it seems in this case, we've gotten -- we traded them for a reasonable deal here . . . I think we would have made the same decision in the Bush administration . . . ."
Idaho Governor, Republican Butch Otter, is simply glad Sgt. Bergdahl has been rescued:
"There are still too many unknowns for me to weigh in on the specifics of how this prisoner exchange occurred. I'm not going to speculate on anything beyond what I know -- and what I know is that after almost five years, a young man from Idaho no longer is in enemy hands. There are processes in place within the military and in Congress for whatever happens next. Those processes need to run their course."
And despite calls by Republicans for President Obama's impeachment (their go-to position for nearly every manufactured infraction) for not notifying Congress prior to the swap, Maine Independent Senator Angus King told CNN, "They had intelligence that, had even the fact of these discussions leaked out, there was a reasonable chance Bowe Bergdahl would have been killed. And that was one of the pieces of information that we learned yesterday that gave it some credence in terms of why it had to be kept quiet so long." As Secretary of State John Kerry noted, "It would have been offensive and incomprehensible to consciously leave an American behind, no matter what, to leave an American behind in the hands of people who would torture him, cut off his head, do any number of things . . . We would consciously choose to do that?"
The whole picture is highly disturbing: Attacks on Sgt. Bergdahl for allegedly being a bad soldier and therefore unworthy of being rescued, followed by attacks on his father for taking every possible measure to ensure his son's safety, followed by attacks on Sgt. Bergdahl's home town of Hailey, Idaho, for supporting a "deserter" or a "traitor" (again, with no evidence of either), with parallel attacks on President Obama for just about every step of the swap, and calls for impeachment for his unapologetic rescue of an American POW. It begs the question of where the GOP thinks it's going with this newest attack theme.
Whatever Sgt. Bergdahl's failings as a soldier - and we don't know yet whether there were any failures - this country's recourse has never been to hand our military personnel over to the enemy as a disciplinary measure, or, conversely, to allow them to remain in enemy hands when we have an opportunity to get them out. For the GOP to personally attack Sgt. Bergdahl, to gin up hatred and potential violence against him and his family, with no evidence whatsoever to support their charges, is a risky gambit, particularly in an election year.
Apparently it's never occurred to Republicans what their next move will be if it turns out that Sgt. Bergdahl, far from being a deserter or traitor, was simply grabbed by the Taliban as he used a makeshift latrine near his post.