By Richard Reeves
In this file image taken from video obtained from the Voice of Jihad website, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, right, stands with a Taliban fighter in eastern Afghanistan. AP
If today’s Republican Party had been around during the Civil War, it would have tried to stop its own president, a fellow named Lincoln, from appointing Gen. Ulysses S. Grant commander of the Union Army because he drank on duty—quite a lot, apparently. And if the president was a Democrat, say Thomas Jefferson, the Republicans would be calling for hearings to find out the "real" reason he was sending Lewis and Clark into the wilderness to learn what was out there between the Mississippi and the Pacific.
So now it is President Obama and Sgt. Bergdahl. It could be Obama and anyone or anything. In fact, the Republicans and other conservatives have been bad-mouthing the president for years for not doing enough to get the wandering sergeant back from the Taliban.
Four months ago, Sen. John McCain said he would support the exchange of five hard-core Taliban leaders for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. "Obviously, I’d have to know the details," said McCain, "but I would support ways of bringing him home, and if exchange was one of them, I think that would be something I think we should seriously consider."
When it turned out Obama, as commander-in-chief, was doing something, McCain changed his tune, saying, "I would not have made this deal." The deal, he added, puts all United States military personnel in danger from terrorists. The prisoner exchange is "troubling" and "poses a great threat." He’ll be calling for hearings any day now.
There is much to honor in McCain’s service as a Navy pilot and prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Because of his distinguished military family—his father was commander of Naval forces in that war—the North Vietnamese offered to trade him to the Americans. He refused, saying he would come home when lesser officers and enlisted men were released. A hero.
As a politician, not so much. Like many Republicans and conservatives, he is against anything favored by this president. That intransigence is what is causing gridlock in the capital and disdain in the nation.
Like most everyone, I have no idea who Bowe Bergdahl is and why he disappeared one night five years ago. What I do know is that he was an American soldier. The president was his commander, and the president’s job was to get him back. It is not hard to imagine what McCain and his ilk would be saying if the sergeant had died in custody. For now, they are complaining that the president got a bad deal. The Guantanamo prisoners traded for Bergdahl may not be as formidable or evil as McCain and friends are saying. We shall see, unless we have the knee-jerk vision of politicians.
Having said all that, there are men of the right, journalists, who have stepped up to talk about common sense. I was astounded, and impressed, when I saw Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post columnist and Fox News regular, saying:
"Look, had the choice been mine, I would have made that same choice (as Obama). It’s a difficult decision and I would not attack those who would have done otherwise." He also made the point, using Israeli prisoner exchanges as an example, that advanced democracies are always going to come out "on the short end" of swaps—because a free press publicizes and humanizes individual cases.
In The New York Times, David Brooks, a mellower conservative than Krauthammer, also wrote that he believes the president made the right decision:
"National solidarity is essential to the health of the country. This feeling of solidarity means that we do pull together and not apart in times of crisis, like after the attacks on 9/11. Despite all our polarization, we do accept the election results, even when the other party wins. People in New York do uncomplainingly send tax dollars to help people in New Mexico. We are able to assimilate waves of immigration."
"It doesn’t matter if Bergdahl had deserted his post or not," Brooks continued. "It doesn’t matter if he is a confused young man who said insulting and shameful things about his country and his Army. The debt we owe to fellow Americans is not based on individual merit. It is based on citizenship and loyalty to the national community we all share."
Brooks concluded: "The president’s instincts were right. His sense of responsibility for a fellow countryman was correct. It’s not about one person; it’s about the principle of all-for-one-and-one-for-all, which is the basis of citizenship."
Yes. It is rare to hear any conservatives cross the political line to say the most important thing about a great country: We are all in this together.
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