It was a conundrum: Would winning the freedom of the only United States soldier held by the Taliban be worth releasing five Taliban prisoners held by the U.S.?
President Obama, with the advice of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran and a Republican, decided that the commitment the nation makes to those who serve in uniform took precedence. He agreed to a deal to free U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the American prisoner in Afghanistan, in exchange for the release from Guantanamo Bay of five former leaders of the Taliban.
Sen. John McCain, a former POW and 2008 Republican nominee for president, appreciated the American soldiers release but criticized the trade that led to it. McCain and other critics, including some Democrats, believe the five, who appear to be formerly high-ranking leaders in the terrorist group, are a threat to America.
McCain knows there is a gamble in all foreign policy, and Obama has indeed taken a calculated risk with mixed results. The president could have better informed senior members of Congress as to his plans. He did not handle the matter well before or after the release. But Bergdahl was in danger, his health reportedly deteriorating after five years in Taliban custody. To abandon efforts to free the last American POW held in Afghanistan would not have been an option.
Since the announcement of Bergdahls release, emails from the soldier have circulated indicating he was disillusioned about the war and might have left his post knowing he would likely be captured. But his actions and motives remain unclear. If he deserted, he will be punished. But the proper punishment would not be to leave him to the enemy.
Now the presidents critics are conjuring visions, some of them quite colorful, of these former Taliban leaders returning to power. Thats an unlikely scenario, however. First, the five are in the custody of Qatar, which helped broker the deal, and there is, U.S. officials say, a clear understanding that there is to be a one-year travel ban on the five.
In addition, all five have been imprisoned for at least 10 years. Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are many Taliban figures. Thats not to say that the United States can afford to ignore the Taliban. But realistically, the notion that five former leaders long removed from their roles can step back into their previous positions is unlikely.
And since the mens capture, American intelligence and the countrys military are far more aware of, and well-informed about, the activities of the Taliban. It is no longer some mysterious organization that lurks always in the shadows. Its activities are closely monitored.
And what if the president had done nothing about Bergdahl? Would Republican critics have stayed silent as if to say, Its OK, Mr. President, we understand.
No, they would have accused Obama, who is not a veteran, of abandoning a soldier in uniform, of breaking the countrys solemn commitment to rescue its soldiers. The president couldnt win either way.
So he took the honorable option, if a risky one. He got Bergdahl out. That, properly, will reinforce the confidence of all those in uniform that their country will not leave them behind.
Republicans have been so extreme in their criticisms of all things Obama, from domestic social policy to health care to financial recovery to their over-the-top attempts to use the Benghazi tragedy to attack him, that their criticisms in this case seem like reflexive opposition.
What is known for certain is that an American serviceman held for five years is free, and five members of the Taliban, long out of the leadership and the loop, are held in a sort of limbo. That may be an imperfect bargain, but it is one the president should have made.