The Bergdahl Beard and the Longest American War Ever

Did the Obama administration make a grievous mistake in swapping prisoners for the release of US solider Bowe Bergdahl? Yes, no, maybe, I don't know, who really cares? All of these answers are, in one respect or another true. The Bergdahl controversy is almost a caricature of American political discourse in the Obama era, with both sides taking strong and outspoken positions based simply on whether or not they like the President, fighting in the media over something that is not very important, and making sure that the public bickering obscures more significant government decisions and policies.

The Bergdahl debate is, at its core, about nothing. More accurately, it is about nothing other than whether or not you like President Obama. One way to see this is to see how easily each side could take the opposite position. If Obama had refused to make the deal, John McCain, Marco Rubio and others would be climbing over each other to denounce President Obama for violating the sacred trust that the military has with each soldier. Tea Party supporters would be waving signs about how Obama is anti-American and contemptuous of the military and its traditions. Supporters of the president would laud him for putting national security ahead of the interest of one solider who was at best foolish and perhaps worse. If, on the other hand, a Republican president had made the prisoner swap, McCain and others would be defending that president for honoring the military and its traditions in a time of war, while Democrats in Congress would attack that president for letting politics get in the way of what is best for national security.

The release of Bowe Bergdahl is extremely important to Mr. Bergdahl, his family and anybody else who knows him well. It is also a story that on the human level should generate good feelings from many Americans. It is good news when a soldier, even one who has exercised questionable judgement, comes home alive. Most Americans should also be concerned with the release of prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl, but this is probably where the story should end. It is essentially a human interest story that has some compelling angles but lacks substantial bearing on American foreign policy, or the war in Afghanistan more broadly. However, it gives both sides of the domestic political divide an opportunity to pound their chests, sound righteous and question the patriotism of the other side, so we ordinary citizens will probably be hearing about this for some time to come.

The Bergdahl story was not, of course, the most important story related to the US military and Afghanistan of the last weeks. President Obama's announcement that close to 10,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2016 is a bigger and more significant piece of news. Interestingly, most of the media covered this story as evidence that the US is winding down its involvement in Afghanistan, but the new plan actually extends the US commitment in Afghanistan. Until recently, the plan had been to withdraw almost all troops by the end of this year, but that has now changed.

There has been little debate about this because the media is now focusing on more important concerns like whether Bowe Bergdahl's father Robert Bergdahl's beard makes him an Islamist, a hippie or one of the characters on Duck Dynasty. Clearly, the questions of why Bergdahl can speak a few words of Arabic, or of whether the policy of leaving no soldiers behind applies when a Democrat is in the White House, is more important than the announcement by the president that the longest war in American history is being extended for two more years.

In recent years, the political analysts have noted the rise in hyper-partisanship as well as the rise of the ideological extremes in both major parties. This analysis was always somewhat overstated because it rested on a false equivalency between the Tea Party and the Obama-Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party. The Bergdahl contretemps suggests that this analysis is flawed because ideology is no longer driving the clash between Obama and his opponents. Instead, it is personal. It is about Republican legislators and the right-wing media viewing current events through an almost Pavlovian lens, where if something makes Obama look good, they must oppose it. Supporters of the president feel compelled to defend the president in a similar fashion. Thus, a nuanced and not very important issue becomes transformed into a major fight over sound bites and accusations while the war drags on.