War on the Rocks
June 12, 2014
Less than two weeks ago, President Obama took to the White House briefing room to make a surprise announcement: “Today the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years.” He continued, “On behalf of the American people, I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return.” By Monday, however, the “I’s” and “we’s” went away, shifting to a “he.”
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, White House officials pointed the finger at Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as having ultimately approved the swap of Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders held captive at Guantanamo. Outgoing committee chairman Buck McKeon (R, CA) told the press that the administration seems to be setting up Hagel as the “fall guy” for the feel-good moment that quickly turned controversial.
Granting that McKeon is a Republican who enjoys turning up the heat on a Democratic president, he’s right when he declares, “I think people understand who made this decision. This goes right to the top.” McKeon’s partisanship showed through when he added, “Or maybe we don’t know who’s in charge of the White House.”
McKeon further charged, “I think they’re parsing words, worrying about who gets the blame, if things really go bad.” According to two polls released Tuesday, that state of affairs isn’t far off. USA Today/Pew Research found that a plurality of 43% of Americans think it was wrong to make the deal, versus only 34% who thought it was the right call. CBS News found similar sentiments, with 45% against and 37% in favor. Moreover, 56% – and a whopping 65% of veterans – think “the U.S. paid too high a price.”
Now, I happen to be in the minority here. As an American and as a veteran, I expect our leadership to do what’s necessary to get our prisoners of war home safely. Distasteful as releasing Taliban militants might be, it’s hardly unprecedented to engage in prisoner swaps in these cases, especially as wars wind to their conclusion (although President Obama should have followed the law and notified Congress ahead of the swap; but that’s a separate issue). Regardless, it strains credulity that anyone other than the Commander-in-Chief made the call on this one.
Two weeks ago, Hagel himself told “Meet The Press” that “I signed off on the decision. The president made the ultimate decision.”
Of course he did.
Furthering a trend that’s been ongoing for decades, Obama largely ignores his Cabinet secretaries who, like Hagel, tend to be career Washingtonians. He prefers instead the counsel of trusted advisers from the campaign trail who he knows have his back politically and understand the importance of staying on message. This is not without consequence. Months ago, Glenn Thrush observed:
Putting a premium on political savvy over creativity has made it harder to generate new proposals. Limiting the number of new voices in Obama’s inner circle has given a cramped, predictable feeling to his White House and increased the pressure on a diminishing cast of indispensable staffers, who are now burning out and breaking down.
While I have no doubt that Obama respects Hagel’s counsel on national security affairs -he was, after all, on the President’s intelligence and defense advisory boards before taking his current position – the bottom line is that these calls are all ultimately political judgments and this president doesn’t delegate them. Nor should he.
If Hagel is in fact being thrown under the proverbial bus here – and so far we only have McKeon’s word on that – it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Going back to the 2008 campaign, Obama has been ruthless in cutting ties with close associates who get in the way of his agenda.
The situation most analogous to this one is the one faced by longtime Obama confidant Susan Rice, who was slated to replace Clinton as Secretary of State until her dutiful repeating of administration talking points on Benghazi became controversial. Not only did the coveted post instead go to John Kerry, but leaks went out declaring that he had been the choice all along. Rice did eventually get the National Security Advisor post, which isn’t subject to Senate confirmation, as a consolation prize.
But if Hagel is going to be the fall guy, he’s not cooperating. Appearing himself before McKeon’s committee Wednesday, he declared, “We made the right decision, and we did it for the right reasons” – note the “we” – and continued, “I want to be clear on one fundamental point – I would never sign off on any decision that I did not feel was in the best interests of this country.” He added, “Nor would the president of the United States, who made the final decision with the full support of his national security team.”
That version of events – which I believe happens to be the truth – is the right tack for the administration to take. The president made a difficult judgment call, but one that any of his predecessors would have likely decided the same way. He should simply own it.