Written by Andrew C. McCarthy
With the Bergdahl-Taliban swap, the administration elevates moral narcissism over objective reality.
This week on Fox News (here and here), the estimable Charles Krauthammer argued in favor of President Obama’s decision to swap detainees with a terrorist organization, indulging the administration’s portrayal of a “prisoner of war” exchange though the trade involves unlawful-combatant jihadists (two of them wanted for mass-murder war crimes) and a deserter.
I respectfully disagree.
Charles’s theory is that the West routinely engages in these sorts of swaps and should do so, despite always coming out on the short end, because it is a beneficial exhibition of the higher value we place on human life. I do not for a moment doubt Dr. K’s sincerity in stressing the value of human life, but I believe he is confounding the value and the exhibition — the high-minded display of good intentions. After all, as we shall see, his argument is a loser from a humanitarian perspective.
Charles appears to find the demonstration of our veneration of life beneficial because the so-called war on terror is, in part, a war of ideas. That is, even though these typically one-sided exchanges are a tactical victory for the terrorists, our cause is advanced over the long haul because the superiority of our values attracts convincible people to our side.
It is a nice thought, of a piece with the Lawyer Left pipe dream that we advance our security by bringing terrorists into our civilian criminal-justice system and abandoning such heavy-handed practices as coercive interrogation, military commissions, and indefinite law-of-war detention. Here’s the problem: These pieties do not correlate to real-world experience. Irresolute responses to barbarism beget more barbarism.
It is delusional to believe that most people in the Muslim Middle East view the conflict through our self-absorbed lens and perceive a contest between savage and noble principles. They have their own lens, and through it they see the strong horse versus the weak horse. You don’t win a war of ideas against a culture that brays, “We love death more than you love life!” by showing them how much you love life. To think otherwise is an example of what Roger Simon wrote about this week: the elevation of moral narcissism over objective reality.
Charles Krauthammer, of course, is no pie-in-the-sky progressive. So not surprisingly, he also cites a more concrete benefit of demonstrating our reverence for human life: It breeds a knowledge that we never abandon our captured troops, which is essential to the esprit de corps of the world’s most effective fighting force.
In principle, I agree. But in the Bergdahl-Taliban situation, the principle is inapposite. Charles, it turns out, is conflating some importantly distinct concepts. To begin with, there is a huge difference between how detainees are treated (a) in the midst of hostilities and (b) in an armistice at the conclusion of hostilities.
While combat is still raging — especially combat by terrorist methods that violate civilized norms — detainees should be held until the conclusion of hostilities unless there is some strategic advantage in releasing them. There can be no strategic advantage in replenishing the Taliban with five of its most capable commanders at a time when the Taliban, along with its al-Qaeda and Haqqani confederates, is still conducting offensive jihadist operations against both our troops in harm’s way and civilians.
On that score, it would not matter if the deserter Bowe Bergdahl were, instead, a heroic Audie Murphy. Indeed, as my old boss Rudy Giuliani observed on Sean Hannity’s program this week, an honorable American prisoner of war would not want to be released if the price were freeing five terrorists who would then gravely endanger his fellow troops.
Moreover, in stressing how a detainee swap satisfies the admirable objective of retrieving our captive troops, Charles misses the other side of the humanitarian ledger. The laws of war permit detention of enemy combatants until the conclusion of hostilities not to punish the captives but to promote peace. The theory is that depleting the enemy’s resources creates an incentive on the enemy’s part to seek a truce and bring the war to a swifter end with less bloodshed.
To the contrary, releasing enemy combatants while the war is still raging fortifies the enemy, incentivizes the enemy to extend the war, and causes more carnage. If we are going to talk about our values and the veneration of human life, it makes no sense to account for the marginal humanitarian benefit of obtaining the return of our captured troops while ignoring the humanitarian catastrophe of returning enemy detainees to a hot battlefield. That is especially so if the detainees in question are terrorists, who target civilians.
This is not to say that we forget about our captured troops. Far from it. We routinely divert military resources that could be devoted to other strategic wartime objectives in order to conduct combat rescue operations. But we do not “rescue” our captured troops by negotiating with terrorist organizations and releasing their captured operatives so the enemy can sustain itself and kill more American troops.
If we were talking about a settlement to conclude hostilities, Charles would have a point. When war ends, with it ends the law-of-war justification for detaining enemy combatants without trial. At that point, even detainees who continue to pose a threat must be released unless they can be charged with war crimes or other offenses. The five Taliban commanders, however, were not exchanged in a final settlement that ends the war. They are going back to a very lethal jihad.
The absurdity here is that President Obama seems to think he can bring a war to an end, abracadabra, by saying so. In reality, the war is not close to being over from the enemy’s point of view — they are continuing to fight. Under such circumstances, Obama can end the war only by surrendering. In effect, that is what he is doing, albeit in slow motion and under the camouflage of a risible Afghan “reconciliation process.” (Translation: The Taliban retakes the country in a way that is made to look like a political settlement rather than a jihadist coup.)
The fiction that the war is coming to an end is the premise of the administration canard that trading experienced, revered, implacably anti-American terrorists for Bergdahl honors the sacred tradition that we do not leave our troops behind. It is on this commitment that Dr. K seizes. In this case, though, it is a non sequitur. In order to leave someone behind, you have to be leaving. Even on Obama’s arbitrary timetable, U.S. forces will not be pulling out of Afghanistan for another two years. We are not leaving. Nor are the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Haqqanis. Since we are not yet leaving, there was no reason at this point for concern about leaving Berghdahl behind.
Furthermore, even when the commitment not to leave people behind does apply, it does not mean anything goes. The Taliban is a terrorist organization, not a nation. Negotiating with a terrorist organization and agreeing to restock its top ranks — especially when it is still killing our troops — is not an acceptable way to retrieve captured Americans.
Nor is conducting such negotiations through a sham nominee. Our ballyhooed alliance with the government of Qatar is the artifice by which Obama pretends not to be negotiating directly with the Taliban. Qatar is a terrorism promoter: It is the obliging home of the Taliban’s government in waiting and the hospitable headquarters of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood sharia jurist who issued a fatwa endorsing jihad against American troops in Iraq. A week after the attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush correctly said that the only way to win the war was to punish terror-promoting regimes the same way we would punish terrorists. Now, we use terror-promoting regimes as a cut-out to materially support terrorists. And we wonder why we’re losing.
The fact that Bergdahl is a deserter also factors into the “leave no one behind” calculus. Bergdahl left America behind. We did not owe him the same consideration owed to a loyal, honorable American soldier. In fact, there are indications that Bergdahl may not just have deserted but collaborated with the jihadists in operations against American troops — troops he had to know would risk their lives to retrieve him after he willfully abandoned them. As Michelle Malkin reports, eight American soldiers were killed by the enemy during our forces’ valiant effort to rescue him.
If we are going to be guided by the value we place on human life, the fact is that wartime desertion is such a serious offense against military justice that it has historically been punished by the death penalty or lengthy prison terms. From a humanitarian perspective, it is irrational to free five terrorists who will go back to killing civilians and American soldiers in order to secure the return of a deserter who may be court-martialed and, at the very least, sentenced to mega–jail time.
If the war were really ending, it would make sense to trade the Taliban commanders for an American detainee. As noted above, when a war ends, enemy combatants must be released unless they can be charged with war crimes or other criminal charges. If we were in a position to charge Taliban commanders with crimes, it would be perfectly reasonable to forgo such a prosecution in order to ensure that the terrorist organization returned any American captives. Yes, we would be forfeiting the opportunity to keep dangerous anti-Americans locked up; but we would be securing the return of Americans, and with the war over and our troops no longer on scene to be targeted, it would be a risk worth taking, a rational exchange. But giving terrorists back to the Taliban while we still have troops on the battlefield is neither.
A final point. Dr. K and others who defend detainee trades like the Bergdahl-Taliban deal claim to find support for their position in Israel’s frequent swaps of numerous Palestinian terrorists for an Israeli captive or two. The Israeli example is unavailing.
For one thing, the situation could not be more different. Israel is a tiny besieged country with a conscripted military in a conflict that is part border war, part jihadist infiltration, against a people with whom it hopes (however futilely) to settle and coexist peacefully. It struggles while confronting overwhelming opposition, demagoguery, and material support to its terrorist enemies that no other country endures — but, on the razor’s edge of survival, it must make its way.
We, by contrast, are a superpower projecting force thousands of miles from our shores against a barbaric foreign enemy that we have no need to accommodate and every incentive to defeat utterly. Our position vis-à-vis the enemy is not analogous to Israel’s. We are the world’s most powerful and influential country, so when we indulge terrorists, it legitimizes their methods and destabilizes the world; Israel’s indulgences have no comparable effect.
All that said, Israel is wrong to swap thousands of jihadists for a relative handful of its citizens. Doing so greatly encourages mass-murder attacks and makes every Israeli citizen an abduction target. That is not humanitarian policy; it is suicidal policy. It is not our place to tell them how to conduct their national defense, a matter on which they often do a better job than we. Neither, however, should we feel obliged to emulate them when they are being foolish . . . even if it is well-intentioned foolishness.
The reservoirs of respect I have for Charles Krauthammer overflow. I also appreciate his concession that he would not rebuke those who oppose the Bergdahl-Taliban swap that he endorses — it is, he says, a close call. It is not my purpose to rebuke him, either. But I don’t think it is a close call. I think it was reckless dereliction of duty on the part of the commander-in-chief.
First published on National Review online and reposted with author's permission.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book, Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment, was released by Encounter Books on June 3.