Frank Rich on the National Circus: Bowe Bergdahl and the Messy End of America’s Longest War

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Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the controversial homecoming of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl; Obama's bold new EPA regulations; and the dangerous case of James Risen.

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, America's last prisoner of war in Afghanistan, was released last weekend by the Taliban in exchange for five prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay. The prisoner swap has incited a flurry of criticism, with detractors questioning the legality of President Obama's use of executive power, the wisdom of negotiating with a terrorist organization, the circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance, and even the significance of Bergdahl's father's beard. (Okay, that last one was only harped on by Bill O'Reilly.) Usually the homecoming of a captured American soldier would be cause for universal celebration. Why has this one produced such uproar?
The key reporting on this entire incident comes from Amanda Terkel and Sam Stein of the Huffington Post, who found that as recently as May 22, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, now a loud Republican critic of the swap, had issued a press release urging the Department of Defense “to do all it can to find Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and bring him home safely,” and that in February Mitch McConnell had joined a resolution "to express the sense of the Senate that no member of the armed forces who is missing in action or captured should be left behind.” So what has changed in the weeks since? Not much. Even Bergdahl’s disillusionment with the war was previously part of the public record, thanks to a lengthy Rolling Stone article by the late writer Michael Hastings, published in 2012. So what have we learned? That America is “negotiating with terrorists” — something it always does when it is trying to broker peace and end a war, let alone the longest war in our history. That some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers believed that his disappearance cost lives when others went searching for him — a claim not yet substantiated, unless repetition on cable news (CNN as well as Fox News) counts as such. We’ve learned that the released Taliban thugs — the “Taliban dream team,” in the sloganeering of Lindsey Graham — may rejoin the Taliban.

The real story, as I wrote in a piece in this week’s New York, is that Americans loathe everything about the two long wars we’ve fought and lost since 9/11. We want them over but we don’t want to worry our heads too much about the bloody details of our exit — whether that involves the release of prisoners, the shameful neglect of American vets by the VA hospital system, the alliance of the “democracy” we installed in Iraq with both Iran and Syria, or memories of how we got into the debacle in the first place. The real “dream team” was the Al Qaeda dream team that attacked us on 9/11, after the Bush administration ignored intelligence specifically warning of the attack. That cost roughly 3,000 American lives — even more, you may be surprised to hear, than the four Americans lost at Benghazi. That the Taliban remains resurgent in Afghanistan all these years later despite the huge costs in American lives and treasure is the sorry underlying fact that all the current political posturers want to drown out.

As for Bergdahl, if he was a deserter or committed any crime, the military has said he will be dealt with by the law. Meanwhile, he and his father’s beard and all the rest of it will be but pawns in the continuing political fallout over two endless wars that did not go well.

President Obama came to the White House as a critic of executive overreach and spent much of his first term trying to work with Congress (usually in vain). Over the past two years, he has embraced a more aggressive use of his powers, and on Monday, he launched one of the boldest executive actions of his presidency: stringent new EPA regulations on carbon pollution. Liberals will laud Obama's strong commitment to tackling climate change, but should they be concerned by how he got there?
Obama is without question stretching executive power every which way he can — including the Bergdahl deal, in which the White House was too cute by half: Obama used the kind of “signing statement” that he and other Democrats strenuously opposed in the Bush era so he could wriggle past the law that required 30 days’ advance notification to Congress. Of course we should be concerned about a president using executive powers as a primary and coercive form of governance — for the powers used to try to help save Sergeant Bergdahl or the planet today could be used to bring on the next Iraq tomorrow. That said, Obama is president under extraordinary circumstances: From the start, he has faced an opposition that has been out to nullify his presidency rather than to govern. It’s also an opposition that has been determined to nullify the irrefutable science about man-made climate change. Despite the constant claim by Beltway columnists, Obama doesn’t have the option of knocking heads together on Capitol Hill and forcing bipartisan deals in the LBJ manner. So he has taken an alternative road. If his modest actions on greenhouse gasses contribute at all to alleviating an environmental apocalypse, history may judge his executive overreach in the face of crisis as FDR-like rather than Bush-like. 

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from New York Times reporter James Risen, who faces jail time for refusing to identify a confidential source. Risen's fate now depends largely on Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been extremely aggressive in pursuing government leakers but now seems to have softened his stance. The Obama administration has not been considered a friend of the press, especially hard-hitting national security reporters. How will its treatment of Risen's case affect its legacy? And how concerned are you about the chilling effect of cases like these on the press's ability to operate?
The administration — that is, Eric Holder — should drop the Risen case, period. Risen was doing his job, and without reporters like him, we wouldn’t know the little we do know about how our national-security state operates. This case is simply another attempt to intimidate a free press. And the chilling effect is especially real in today’s troubled journalistic ecosystem. There are fewer and fewer news organizations with the financial and legal means to do battle with the government.

Obama’s continued clampdown on news media doesn’t even bring him any political benefits. It instead just feeds every over-the-top conspiracy theory about what underlies each administration scandal, real or concocted. Indeed, he could be remembered as the president who did the most to enable government spying on his fellow Americans while at the same time being the president who did the most to prevent the press from reporting on what the government is up to. Does he really want this as a major part of his legacy?