Does it matter whether Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was a deserter, or worse, a traitor? In evaluating President Obama's decision to trade five high-ranking Taliban terrorists for Bergdahl, it absolutely does.
Given the public-relations fiasco around the Bergdahl deal, liberal commentators are circling the wagons. Their latest argument, designed to compartmentalize the pieces of the controversy so they can't be considered as a whole, is that the President's calculation of what it was worth giving up to get Bergdahl back should not have taken consideration of the facts of Bergdahl's conduct and disappearance, specifically his abandonment of his comrades and mission under circumstances suggesting a deeper betrayal than simple desertion. This argument (which is summarized here by Brian Beutler at the New Republic, although it's been coming from people all over the left side of the commentariat the past two days), goes more or less like this:
1) Either you believe the military should have an ethos of "leave no man behind," or you do not.
2) Either you believe deserters should be court-martialed, or you do not.
3) You can't have a court martial until you've brought Bergdahl back.
4) If you believe in 1) and 2), you should want Bergdahl back first before deciding if he deserted, which is a matter for the court martial system, and he is presumed innocent until then.
As Beutler put it on Twitter, "this standard of rendering verdicts against POWs while they're in captivity and using them to oppose rescue is disgusting."
There are two related problems with this syllogism that illustrate its dependence on simple-minded sloganeering in lieu of sober judgments of reality. First, it confuses purely military decisions with major national security decisions. For soldiers, "leave no man behind" is more than a slogan - it's part of the deep ethos of military service, the knowledge that your comrades have your back even if you get lost or wounded or just screw up. It's the second-highest value the military has, and it's why commanders won't think twice about rescue missions that may put the lives of more soldiers at risk than those that are being rescued. Of course, there's a fair amount of bitterness at Bergdahl's desertion - his decision to leave everyone behind - among his former Army comrades and especially those who lost loved ones trying to get him back. But nobody really argues the point that the military should make efforts like that to get guys like him back.
But an exchange of high-value detainees is not a purely military decision. It's a national-security decision of precisely the type that has always been reserved, not to military men according to their military code, but to the elected civilian political leadership that makes the really big decisions with an eye beyond today's battlefields to the greater interests of the nation. After all, the military's highest value, even higher than its commitment to the lives of its men and women in uniform, is the mission itself - and it's the civilian leadership that sets the mission and chooses what sacrifices we ask of them. There are serious downsides to making ransom deals with terrorists, including setting dangerous men free and setting bad precedents and incentives for the future. Even President Obama had to admit that we could live to regret this deal in terrible ways:
"Is there a possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely," Obama told a news conference in Warsaw.
"That's been true of all the prisoners that were released from Guantanamo. There's a certain recidivism rate that takes place."
The existence of downsides, even grave ones, may not convince us to adopt an absolute rule against deals with terrorists; national security decisions often involve a choice among lesser evils, and if your foreign policy can be summarized on a bumper sticker, you will probably get in a lot of accidents. But they illustrate why the pros and cons and competing values need to be weighed carefully, rather than letting one motto ("leave no man behind") or another ("we don't negotiate with terrorists") do our thinking for us. Our principles, as always, must remain a compass, not a straitjacket. And once you concede that the decision involved weighing competing values rather than blindly following a single overriding rule, you have to take consideration of the fact that - while of course we all wanted Bergdahl back - retrieving him was not as compelling a value as retrieving a soldier who did his duty as best he could and unquestionably remained loyal to his country.
Which brings me to the second problem with the syllogism being proposed: that it asks the President of the United States to make vital national security decisions while wearing lawyer-imposed blinders as to the facts. Yes, as a legal matter under U.S. criminal law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Sergeant Bergdahl is innocent until proven guilty of desertion or any graver misconduct. But every day of the week, every hour of the day, Presidents make decisions on matters large and small, in the national security area and other areas, affecting the lives of many people, based on facts that have not been litigated in court. The idea that the facts of Bergdahl's disappearance could simply be wished away or pretended not to exist, simply because no court-martial had been convened, is ridiculous and juvenile. It's not as if we could get the five Taliban back if we tried Bergdahl and found him guilty, after all. Presidents make decisions based on the best information they have. Sometimes, that information doesn't come from sources that conform to the legal rules of evidence, or from sources that could ever be disclosed in a courtroom. And sometimes, facts come out later that show that the President was misinformed - but those facts arrive too late for a decision to be made. These are the adult realities of the Presidency, and only an appallingly misguided legalism can lead President Obama's own supporters, in the sixth year of his presidency, to remain blind to it.
The military owed Bowe Bergdahl its promise to try to rescue him, even if he walked away. The nation did not owe him an agreement to compromise national security by surrendering five high-value prisoners without asking what we were getting in return.