Not a Unifying Moment

The release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has prompted a wave of criticism.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., walks to a closed-door briefing at the Capitol on Wednesday in Washington about the decision to swap five members of the Taliban for captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., walks to a closed-door briefing on Wednesday in Washington about swapping five members of the Taliban for captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Most Congressional leaders have said they were uninformed of the decision.

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There was a time when a prisoner of war's homecoming would have been greeted with ticker-tape parades and a shared national relief and joy. When the freed soldier is the last captured person brought home after more than a decade of war, it would seem to be an even more powerful metaphor — the bookend to an era that caused great human and financial loss as well as bitter political division. So with two unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl should have been a unifying national event, a tangible sign that the wars attached to such painful times in American history were finally coming to an end.

A sign showing support for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits along Main Street on Monday, June 2, 2014, in Hailey, Idaho.
A sign in Hailey, Idaho, hometown of Bowe Bergdahl, after it was announced he had been freed by the Taliban.

Instead, the Bergdahl release has been anything but healing. Republicans are railing against the Obama administration for what they see as a bad trade for America — one U.S. prisoner in exchange for five Taliban prisoners being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Other lawmakers are miffed that the administration did not, as is required by law, consult with or inform Congress of the release of Guantanamo prisoners 30 days ahead of time.

Bergdahl himself is not emerging as a sympathetic figure; there are indications that he was disillusioned with the war itself and may have deserted his post before ending up in Taliban captivity for nearly five years. Bergdahl's father, Robert Bergdahl, had tweeted to the Taliban that he was working to free all Guantanamo prisoners, and at the Rose Garden event to announce his son's freedom, sported a long beard and spoke a bit of Pashto — a language spoken in Afghanistan, leading conservative critics to speculate that Robert Bergdahl was identifying with his son's captors.

[READ: Pentagon Reticent on Bergdahl as POW]

And the soldier's release came as Washington was immersed in war-related crises and scandals, with the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs being compelled to resign after reports that the agency was ill-serving vets and covering up their delayed treatment by falsifying records. Congress continues to struggle with ways to deal with the national budget crunch, a fiscal problem partly attributable to the cost (from $4 trillion to $6 trillion, long-term, according to a Harvard researcher) of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, as if to personify the nation's ills over the war, Bergdahl himself was described as being in poor health and reportedly so fragile that U.S. military personnel refrained from even asking about his experience when he was brought to safety in Germany. "Everyone ought to be excited about" Bergdahl's release, says Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican and his party's senior member on the Senate intelligence committee. But "the only people excited about it are the family of this soldier and the Taliban," he adds. 

President Barack Obama makes a statement about the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl as his parents, Jani Bergdahl, left, and Bob Bergdahl stand by on Saturday, May 31, 2014, in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama announces the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with his parents, Jani Bergdahl, left, and Bob Bergdahl on Saturday.

Chambliss and other Republicans critical of the prisoner exchange underscore that they are very pleased a U.S. soldier is free and coming home. But the circumstances of the transaction have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many on the Hill — and have added to an increasing agitation Republicans feel over what they say is a disrespect of Congress on the part of the Obama administration. Congressional leaders (except Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat) said they were not notified of Bergdahl's freeing ahead of time, let alone told about the release of Guantanamo prisoners 30 days in advance.

Senate intelligence committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, said Deputy National Security Adviser Antony Blinken had apologized to her on the phone for the "oversight" of failing to give her a heads-up on the deal. Did she think the reason was that the White House worried Congress wouldn't like the details of the trade? "Yeah, it could be. But the White House is pretty unilateral about what they want to do and when they want to do it," Feinstein says testily. "I think the notification to us is important, and I think it would have been a much better thing to do [to tell Congress in advance] because we do try to work together," Feinstein says.

Republicans were even more pointed. "This president has acted unilaterally and extrajudicially on a whole raft of things. He's getting away with it because the Democrats in the Senate don't stand up," says Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican. "These Democrats won't stand up for the legislative body. They're rubber stamps for the president," adds an exasperated Hatch.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, defended Obama — albeit backhandedly — by saying the president wasn't asserting any unilateral powers not claimed by any other president, Democrat or Republican.

The details of the deal are also irritating lawmakers, who wonder why the U.S. had to give up five potentially very dangerous prisoners (described by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain as Taliban leader "Mullah Omar's dream team") in exchange for one man — especially a soldier whom fellow comrades have said may have deserted.

"At the end of the day, the deal itself was a terrible deal because it incentivizes future kidnappings. We did negotiate with terrorists. When they say we didn't, that's a complete falsehood," says Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. "And the five we let go are going to go back to the fight. You've emboldened the enemy. You've defied our allies, and it was not a good deal for national security," Graham adds. "I'm glad the man is coming home to his family, but I want an investigation into what he did and how he did it. Six people died trying to capture this young man. If he did walk away from his post and put people at risk, I hope the military would take appropriate action."

Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has called for hearings to investigate the legality and advisability of the deal. The military is looking into how and why Bergdahl left his post. President Obama may indeed be getting the U.S. out of Afghanistan with the release of the last American POW. But the war he inherited continues to affect his presidency.