A rare failure of the president’s political mojo

By Peter Lane
I’m sure we can all agree the political and media firestorm over the Bergdahl affair has far overshadowed the earlier Obama pronouncement made at the recent West Point commencement ceremony. I refer to the president’s statement that we will be withdrawing all of our forces from Afghanistan no later than Dec. 31, 2016.

That policy, in my view, puts us at much greater risk than the release of five terrorists, no matter how dangerous they may be, from Guantanamo. He has informed our enemies and the world that, instead of allowing then existing American security interests and strategic considerations to determine if and when we would proceed with any withdrawal—as well as the number and mission of any troops to be left in-country—he is allowing his political calendar and promises to drive United States policies.

Unfortunately for us, and the remainder of the world that may still look to us for leadership, that is how Obama’s recent foreign policy judgments have too frequently been made. Unfortunately, it is clear to me that, while our country and his successor may pay dearly, Obama and his party will pay no short term political price for his fecklessness. Indeed, if anything, my bet is Obama’s political calculations are, as usual, correct. That is, that the prevailing mood of the American public is of the “just get us out of there, the sooner the better” variety and we are in no mood to scrutinize or question how it is done.

Now, this announced withdrawal also feeds in to the Bergdahl matter. After all, once you’ve told the Taliban that we’re totally withdrawing by a date certain, they have no remaining incentive—and we have no remaining leverage—to explore any larger deal with them of the kind the administration claimed it tried to achieve. In effect, while the Taliban may, for better or worse, be part of any new Afghanistan, we have already informed them American forces will not be assisting the Afghan army should they choose to achieve that role by force.

As for the president’s trade of five terrorists to secure the release of Sgt. Bergdahl from a captivity he himself indirectly precipitated by walking away from his post and fellow soldiers; while you may count me among those who disapprove, I think I will leave it to others to opine about its policy aspects.

Instead, after leading this piece by noting how politics seems to trump almost everything else in the Obama White House—and acknowledging at least they get the politics right—I was struck by how his political mojo seemed to have utterly failed him during his management of the Bergdahl swap by failing to anticipate the episode would cause such a large political backlash.

After all, the administration had already gotten strong negative reactions about the then proposed deal from the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee when it first consulted with them some time ago; it acknowledged other American captives, albeit civilians, were left behind and that the released detainees could one day well return to combat.

In the first instance, Obama, using the sergeant’s parents as props, chose the Rose Garden at the White House to announce the agreement himself; thus pompously calling attention to an act that would better have been announced by press release setting forth, in his view, the correct, but not easy, choice to bring back one of our own that he made as our Commander-in-Chief.

Along with his right to do so pursuant to existing executive authority.

Some have categorized that as the political equivalent of an end-zone dance after a touchdown. The eminent New York Times columnist David Brooks, who approved of the deal, described it as “an Oprah-esque photo-op.”

Obama then sends National Security Advisor Susan Rice to the cameras and microphones to declare Bergdahl served his country “with honor and distinction” and that this was “a great day for America.” Never mind that Ms. Rice, whose previous misstatements and inaccuracies while parroting the party line in the aftermath of the Benghazi tragedy cost her the job of secretary of state that she once coveted, has all the credibility Bill Clinton proved to have after telling America he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

The point here is the president’s team seemed to have completely overlooked or discounted the facts that Bergdahl previously left his unit on two prior occasions, the premeditation and planning that went into his leaving on this occasion and that some former soldiers who served with him considered him a deserter and held him accountable for the death of other soldiers who were subsequently charged with searching for him. In that event, we have an egregious failure to properly perform the necessary political due diligence.

Now, it’s always possible the political team, instead of failing to do so, actually did that due diligence and discovered the entirey of the Bergdahl back story. In which case, wanting to make the deal, they decided to very publicly feature his family and make the best argument they have for the president’s decision, i.e. the importance to those serving in our armed services, and the military as an institution, that we will do whatever we must to bring every combatant home, the circumstances of his captivity notwithstanding. That way, they would have calculated that they were putting their best political foot forward and we would overlook all of the deal’s negatives. If that were the case, we have the egregious failure caused by the spectacle of the president marching headlong into a well-marked political minefield at double-time cadence.


Peter Lane retired as a Rye City Court judge and acting Westchester County Family Court judge at the end of 2009. He is now a political consultant and executive director of the Rye City Republican Committee. The views expressed are his.