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Bergdahl is free, but at what cost [Commentary]

There he goes again. At a press conference in Brussels Thursday, President Obama was asked if he was surprised by the controversy over his decision to trade Bowe Bergdahl for five high-ranking Taliban leaders.

His response was vintage Barack Obama: "I'm never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington."

Thus establishing from the start that he considers the controversy to be a kind of partisan farce, he proceeded to rebut criticisms virtually no one has made. This is Mr. Obama's favorite rhetorical trick; he builds and then tears apart a straw man while insisting that the American people are on his side.

"I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody's child and that we don't condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back," he said. "This is not a political football."

Scour the Internet until your fingers bleed, and you won't find a single person who has denied that Bowe Bergdahl is someone's child.

Search through the statements of Mr.  Obama's critics -- Republicans and Democrats -- and you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees that the U.S. should do what it can to retrieve its POWs. No one has ever said the U.S. shouldn't try.

But, obviously, we must put conditions on the effort. That Mr. Bergdahl was held captive for half a decade is proof of that.

The Obama administration had been negotiating for years for Mr. Bergdahl's release. Why negotiate at all if we don't have conditions? Without conditions, the Taliban could ask for anything -- all of the prisoners in Gitmo, a billion dollars, the LA Clippers -- and our hands would be tied.

Of course, the real intent behind Mr. Obama's spin is to take the focus off credible allegations that Mr. Bergdahl was a deserter sympathetic to America's enemies and put it on the more sympathetic parents who just wanted their child back.

But the insinuation that only his critics are guilty of politicizing this foreign policy decision is reprehensible and ridiculous. A 2012 Rolling Stone story on Mr. Bergdahl included a quote from a "senior administration official familiar with the negotiations" who said that, "It could be a huge win if Obama could bring him home." The official added, "Especially in an election year, if it's handled properly." Recall that this same administration has defended itself on the Benghazi scandal by insisting that it never let election year politics influence its foreign policy.

Many analysts are convinced that Mr. Obama's real motive in making this deal was to help him make good on his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and thus pad his legacy. Administration officials have been hinting as much anonymously for a week.

A senior Pentagon official tells the Daily Mail that the president rejected proposals to rescue Mr. Bergdahl because "the president wanted a diplomatic scenario that would establish a precedent for repatriating detainees from Gitmo." This is in keeping with his withdrawal-at-all-cost Afghanistan policy, in which the only timetable that matters is the one driven by his personal political priorities. Mr. Obama wants out of Afghanistan before he leaves office and he needed Mr. Bergdahl home -- no matter the price -- to do that.

This is almost surely why the White House went ahead with an ostentatious Rose Garden event with Mr. Bergdahl's parents. Deep in the White House bunker, they still thought this would be a "huge win" politically. They expected a moment of national celebration to welcome home a hero and that Americans wouldn't much care that we traded away five enemy combatants in a war that was winding down anyway.

And they were so enthralled by their political strategy that they didn't think to get their facts straight about Mr. Bergdahl's record. Hence the hapless performance by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who went on ABC's "This Week" to say that Mr. Bergdahl had served with "honor and distinction" and that he was captured on the battlefield. One can reserve judgment about whether Mr. Bergdahl was a deserter, but it's already clear that Ms. Rice's comments were baldly false. And the claim that Mr. Bergdahl's health was so bad that it justified Mr. Obama's decision to flout the (possibly unconstitutional) law requiring they notify Congress of any Gitmo prisoner transfers seems to be unraveling as well.

But none of that matters. Because this is just a whipped-up controversy.

Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. His email is goldbergcolumn@gmail.com. Twitter: @JonahNRO.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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