Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Cue the WilllieHortoning

If you wonder why Obama cut Congress out of the endgame of his negotiation for Bowe Bergdahl, tune in to the late Michael Hastings' account of the politics as of June 2012, in his great reconstruction of Bergdahl's tale:

Officially, Bowe remains a soldier in good standing in the United States Army. He has continued to receive promotions over the past three years, based on his time in uniform, and he now holds the rank of sergeant. Unofficially, however, his status within the military is sharply contested. According to officials familiar with the internal debate, there are those in both Congress and the Pentagon who view Bowe as a deserter, and perhaps even a traitor. As with everything in Washington these days, the sharp political discord has complicated efforts to secure his release.

"The Hill is giving State and the White House shit," says one senior administration source. "The political consequences­ are being used as leverage in the policy debate." According to White House sources, Marc Grossman, who replaced Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was given a direct warning by the president's opponents in Congress about trading Bowe for five Taliban prisoners during an election year. "They keep telling me it's going to be Obama's Willie Horton moment," Grossman warned the White House. The threat was as ugly as it was clear: The president's political enemies were prepared to use the release of violent prisoners to paint Obama as a Dukakis-­like appeaser, just as Republicans did to the former Massachusetts governor during the 1988 campaign. In response, a White House official advised Grossman that he should ignore the politics of the swap and concentrate solely on the policy.

"Frankly, we don't give a shit why he left," says one White House official. "He's an American soldier. We want to bring him home."
Partisanship at this level of toxicity threatens to render Constitutional questions about the executive powers and Congressional prerogatives esoteric. It's a partisanship that knows no water's edge, no boundary of any kind.

What a loss we suffered in Michael Hastings' death. His reporting on Bergdahl's choices, experiences, thinking and writing is incredible. He obviously got the politics dead right, and probably most everything else. Kudos too to Matthew Farwell, "a former soldier who deployed to Afghanistan, [who] contributed additional reporting to this story" -- and who is alive and tweeting.

Update: it occurred to me in the wee hours that if you really wanted to WillieHorton the president, the Machiavellian thing to do would be to soft-pedal reaction until the deal was done, then demonize. Conversely, if you thought the release of the five Taliban members in question seriously jeopardized national security, you might threaten serious political harm to deter it.  It practice I suspect that the reaction of more members of Congress than not was shifting, ambivalent, opportunistic.

P.S. It sheds no light on the current situation, but Shakespeare's Henry IV's verdict on another POW captured in questionable circumstances -- on the barren mountains let him starve -- keeps running through my mind.  The fate of the prisoner in question, in Shakespeare's telling, in part triggered civil war:

Why, yet he doth deny his prisoners,
But with proviso and exception,
That we at our own charge shall ransom straight
His brother-in-law, the foolish Mortimer;
Who, on my soul, hath wilfully betray'd
The lives of those that he did lead to fight
Against that great magician, damn'd Glendower,
Whose daughter, as we hear, the Earl of March
Hath lately married. Shall our coffers, then,
Be emptied to redeem a traitor home?
Shall we but treason? and indent with fears,
When they have lost and forfeited themselves?
No, on the barren mountains let him starve;
For I shall never hold that man my friend
Whose tongue shall ask me for one penny cost
To ransom home revolted Mortimer.
Revolted Mortimer!
He never did fall off, my sovereign liege,
But by the chance of war; to prove that true
Needs no more but one tongue for all those wounds,
Those mouthed wounds, which valiantly he took
When on the gentle Severn's sedgy bank,
In single opposition, hand to hand,
He did confound the best part of an hour
In changing hardiment with great Glendower:
Three times they breathed and three times did
they drink,
Upon agreement, of swift Severn's flood;
Who then, affrighted with their bloody looks,
Ran fearfully among the trembling reeds,
And hid his crisp head in the hollow bank,
Bloodstained with these valiant combatants.
Never did base and rotten policy
Colour her working with such deadly wounds;
Nor could the noble Mortimer
Receive so many, and all willingly:
Then let not him be slander'd with revolt.
Thou dost belie him, Percy, thou dost belie him;
He never did encounter with Glendower:
I tell thee,
He durst as well have met the devil alone
As Owen Glendower for an enemy.
Art thou not ashamed? But, sirrah, henceforth
Let me not hear you speak of Mortimer:
Send me your prisoners with the speediest means,
Or you shall hear in such a kind from me
As will displease you. My Lord Northumberland,
We licence your departure with your son.
Send us your prisoners, or you will hear of it.
Exeunt King Henry, Blunt, and train
 (Henry IV Part I, I. iii)

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