President Obama complained yesterday that Sergeant Bergdahl is “not a political football.” That should be true, but unfortunately President Obama is responsible for kicking off the football game by announcing the Taliban-Bergdahl swap in a Rose Garden appearance, rather than leaving the announcement to Secretary Hagel and Chairman Dempsey. The White House should not be surprised now that Republicans have been equally political in their response.
Obama’s Bergdahl announcement reflects a consistently counterproductive pattern by the Administration of politicizing both the opening and closure of Guantanamo, an issue I have written about periodically here at Lawfare. For example, the White House insisted on having the White House press secretary announce the return of two Algerian detainees in July 2013, rather than leaving it the Department of Defense. I said at the time that “The White House should stop politicizing Guantanamo (as should Congressional Republicans) and should instead reach out to Republicans to help solve this vexing national security problem.” And in his NDU speech last year, the President could not resist taking a shot at his predecessor by claiming that Guantanamo was “a facility that should never have been opened.” I responded that:
If President Obama wants to close Guantanamo, or reduce the number of individuals held there, he will need bipartisan political support, and trying to pin blame on others is not a productive way to get them to help him solve the problem. President Obama and Administration officials would do better to acknowledge that the detention of terror suspects captured immediately after 9-11 has been a difficult dilemma for two Administrations and that there were no easy answers then, and there are no easy answers now.
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The Bergdahl swap was a “hard national security choice” of the kind to which this blog is dedicated. President Obama made a defensible decision. If that decision has now become a political football, he has no one to blame but himself.