What Difference Does it Make?


What Difference Does it Make?

By R. Alan Clanton | published June 6, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader (D-Nev.), didn’t intend to plagiarize. No, he didn’t purloin someone else’s words in a college term paper (as other unnamed political figures have done in recent memory), nor did he simply fail to cite his source, as required by both the MLA Handbook and the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual.

Let’s just defend Majority Leader Reid by suggesting he was quoting a famous line, much in the same way folks recount a nick of Arnold Schwarzenegger (“I’ll be back!”) or borrow a phrase from Shakespeare (“methinks thou doth protest too much!”).

Reid was defending the Obama administration’s failure to report its actions regarding the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by his Taliban captors, and the facts surrounding Bergdahl’s trade for five Taliban operatives with sordid track records of extreme violence. By law the President, or someone among his top national security advisors, is supposed to inform Congress of any prisoner swap at least 30 days in advance, especially where matters of terror or enemy combatants are involved.

After a few days, Reid revealed that he may have been contacted by someone in the Obama administration the night before Bergdahl’s dramatic release, but when questioned by reporters—some of whom were skeptical of Reid’s own timetable and accounting—Reid became testy.

“What difference does it make?” Reid angrily said to reporters, then, repeating himself to stress the point, “what…difference…does…it…make?”

It was, of course, originally Hillary Clinton’s line.

Clinton, then Secretary of State, and responding to an intense line of questioning during Congressional inquiries into the disastrous sequence of events in Benghazi, Libya, a violent political meltdown in which the U.S. consulate was overrun and several Americans killed, she had become defensive and combative, and had famously slammed the door on the question of who knew what, and when, with a terse “what difference, at this point, does it make?”  That was back on January 23, 2013.

It had been her shining moment of those hearings, and the one sound-bite many in the GOP intend to throw back in her direction in the form of stink-bomb advertising when she begins in earnest her presidential campaign for 2016.

Reid was unintentionally borrowing the line to illustrate that Washington, like history itself, repeats itself. The old pathologies play out as if scripted by Hollywood writers or Shakespeare himself.

Indeed, The Bard would be impressed with the strangeness of this plot. What had started as an opportunity—flawed a bit, perhaps—for the Obama administration to take one of many small but proactive steps toward ramping down U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (U.S. forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghan territory by the end of next year), negotiators worked out a secret deal to exchange five Taliban operatives for Sgt. Bergdahl. The President’s people scheduled a get-together in the Rose Garden, the President made some remarks, handshakes and hugs were exchanged, and all seemed good.

The President and his top people expected some noise, specifically on the issue of trading Taliban fighters for a U.S. soldier. Clinton had once warned the Oval Office inner circle that any such trade would come with some political cost.

What the White House did not expect was the ferocity of the blowback, nor did the President imagine that there would be a chorus of hostility toward Bergdahl. Now, less than a week after Bergdahl’s release, the White House is trying to contain the damage.

Bergdahl’s narrative is murky, and, at times, confusing. Last Sunday, defending the trade, National Security Advisor Susan Rice described Bergdahl as a “hero” and as someone who had served honorably. But within hours another, more troubling narrative evolved—that of a de facto deserter. Dozens of soldiers who had served alongside Bergdahl say that he had walked away from his position before, and got away with it (there are claims that Bergdahl had gone absent from his post on at least two previous occasions, but that his absences had gone unreported to higher-ups). Interviewed by the major networks and the online blogs, almost all of those close to Bergdahl and his unit say he voluntarily abandoned his post, walking or crawling through brush to the nearest village within Taliban controlled areas, and offering himself as a prisoner. Civilian witnesses in nearby areas seem to confirm this version of the story. Bergdahl may have even asked to meet with a Taliban representative who could speak English.

In the days and weeks after his disappearance, a large military manhunt was convened—a search-and-locate mission in which at least six other soldiers were killed, including Bergdahl’s one-time team leader, facts not readily shared by the White House in its desire to create an otherwise warm puff-piece out of the young soldier's release.

Blowback was immediate, on Capitol Hill and in the press. There were questions about whether Bergdahl was worth the trade—a deliberately AWOL soldier in exchange for five violent Taliban fighters who will, even by the White House’s own admission, likely return to combat operations in Afghanistan. Members of the House and Senate—of both parties—wanted to know why they were kept out of the loop on a prisoner swap, especially one of such magnitude. As journalists interviewed those who had served with Bergdahl, it was apparent that their retelling of Bergdahl’s narrative was sharply at odds with what the President and Susan Rice were telling the public. Republicans and conservative bloggers smelled blood in the water.

The President defended his actions, saying he did what any responsible commander-in-chief would do under such circumstances. Bergdahl’s health was deteriorating, and there was urgency since, if word leaked out, the deal might have fallen through, or worse, the Taliban insurgents who held him captive might kill him. Bergdahl may have been drugged, and recent (classified) video may have shown him thin, gaunt and barely able to speak.

But the problem followed Obama daily—to Poland, to France, to Belgium where he met with the leaders of the G6. White House staff, assembled in France for the commemorations of the Normandy invasion, faced more questions about Bergdahl and the circumstances of his exchange than they did issues of the D-Day anniversary.

So intense was the firestorm that the White House convened a closed-door meeting with members of Congress, in which video footage and other materials were shown. The video purports to show Bergdahl in declining health and possibly under the influence of narcotics or suffering from mental trauma. Classified information was also shared with Congress which illuminated the backchannel deal, worked out with Qatar as intermediary, to set up the exchange of Bergdahl from Taliban hands into the hands of U.S. Special Forces, a trade caught on video by the Taliban fighters present that day.

Many Republicans say that the President violated the law by failing to notify lawmakers of White House intention to trade Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl. Some Democrats have defended the President, saying he was well within his negotiating latitude as commander-in-chief, while other Democrats were miffed at the President’s failure to communicate at all, even if by only a couple of days.

The video shown behind closed doors was meant to explain, at least in part, the President’s motivations, and the need for haste and secrecy in the days and hours leading up to Bergdahl’s release. But numerous Republicans, and several Democrats as well, say the video shows them very little in the way of compelling evidence that the Bergdahl trade was so urgent as to force the President to bypass Congress.

The President, digging in his heels, has been adamant: as commander-in-chief he has a responsibility to bring home young Americans who have been sent overseas to fight wars on behalf of the United States. “I make no apologies,” the President has said on several occasions this week. Susan Rice, when asked by CNN reporters to clarify why she characterized Bergdahl in such glowing terms only a week before, attempted to backpedal as deftly as possible under the circumstances: Bergdahl volunteered to serve his country, and risked his life to accept duty in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the chorus of negative reviews by members of Bergdahl’s team cast an unfiltered light on his actions in the field. Many veterans of foreign wars and many former service members—though in general agreement that Bergdahl is innocent until proven guilty (of desertion, or of abetting the enemy, as a few have asserted)—say that the sergeant should not be termed a hero. For most of his Army comrades who were serving with him at the time of his disappearance in 2009, Bergdahl went AWOL, plain and simple, and may have been responsible for the death of at least six other soldiers in the long search-and-rescue operations that followed. Worse, some in his unit have implied that their patrols came under more direct and well-orchestrated attacks in the weeks after Bergdahl fell into the hands of the Taliban.

Clearly the White House was not prepared for the ferocity of negatives flowing from actively serving soldiers—and former team members—of Bergdahl’s unit, a phenomenon made more troubling to some military analysts who see those around the President as being out of touch with the possibility that Bergdahl may have willingly provided information to the Taliban.

Negative reaction nationally had grown so ferocious that in Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, city-wide celebrations were cancelled when organizers and local law enforcement agreed that protests and crowds would overwhelm the city’s ability to manage events. The City, a local TV station and the local newspaper were flooded with calls, emails and text messages—the majority of them negative—and many of the negative comments came from veterans or veterans’ groups. One email said sarcastically, “I have an idea: send an invitation to the parents and families of the 6 honorable soldiers killed trying to find him on his ‘walkabout’.”

On Friday, the President again met the controversy head-on in an interview with NBC News’ Brian Williams, recorded at Normandy in France where the Obama and thousands of others had gathered to celebrate and honor the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The President told Williams that despite the controversy, if it came down to making the same choice, he would follow the same course of action.

“This is something that I would do again,” the President told Williams, “and I will continue to do wherever I have an opportunity, if I have a member of our military who’s in captivity.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Bergdahl Tradeoff and a Full Stop; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 4, 2014.