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Joseph A. Palermo Headshot

Smearing Private Bergdahl: the Republican Right Descends to a New Low

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BERGDAHL
ASSOCIATED PRESS

I thought Karl Rove's 2004 Swift Boating of John Kerry's Vietnam service record in the US Navy was pretty disgusting, but the recent smears against President Barack Obama for winning Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release have descended to a new low. Instead of rejoicing in the homecoming of an American soldier who spent five years as a captive of the Taliban, the Republican response has been one of contempt and condemnation.

There'll be no welcome home festivities in Hailey, Idaho for the 28-year-old Bergdahl, not with the FBI confirming that his family has been receiving threats. Instead, he has become the center of a media storm of which he is unaware as he recuperates at the US military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

Many of the same politicians and pundits who have made such hay over the four lost American lives in Benghazi are now claiming that it might have been better to leave an American POW behind simply because they don't like his politics or that he had gone AWOL.

Whatever was on then-Private Bowe Bergdahl's mind on June 30, 2009 when he left Observation Post Mest Malak in southeastern Afghanistan and wondered off unarmed toward the Pakistan border has little bearing on his subsequent status as a prisoner of war. A faction of the Taliban held Bergdahl for five years and the nation should be rejoicing in the fact that he is alive and relatively unharmed.

If under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCJM) he is found to have violated Army rules and regulations then he'll be dealt with accordingly. That is a separate issue from whether President Obama had an obligation to do whatever he could to win his release. And as far as pinning the deaths of specific servicemen on searching for Bergdahl, that is also something best left to the Army to sort out.

As one U.S. Navy veteran put it: "Last time I checked, the punishment specified for violation of UCMJ Article 85 (or Article 86 depending on Bergdahl's intentions) isn't to throw him to our enemies!"

If the Talibs who held Bergdahl for the past five years had cut off his head and put the video of it on the Internet would Chris Wallace of Fox News be asking on his show whether or not the young Army soldier deserved the death penalty?

Or would he and others be right now slamming Obama Benghazi-style for losing a brave American soldier? And what's the Army supposed to do? Put the slogan: "Join the Army and If You're Captured We'll Leave You to the Enemy" on its recruitment posters?

Fox News, talk radio, MSNBC's Chris Matthews and others have apparently missed the point that Obama, acting as Commander in Chief, is simply upholding the age-old tradition of not leaving soldiers behind when a war ends.

Those voices on the Right who attacked Obama for not doing enough to free Bergdahl turned on a dime to trash the President for doing exactly what they had previously demanded.

The driving forces behind American foreign policy are not the soldiers sent into harm's way but elites hiding behind desks and TV cameras who always seem to be crying for more war from the safe confines of their air-conditioned offices and studios. Yet mouthpieces from the same foreign policy elites that plunged the United States into two disastrous wars are now criticizing a 28-year-old POW and his family just to beat up Obama and his party as a prelude to the 2014 midterm elections.

We've heard pundits and commentators question Bergdahl's interest in Afghan culture (as if it's better to be ignorant about the people you're supposedly helping). They've attacked his hobby as a ballet dancer, and even the length of his dad's beard. And although Bergdahl and his parents aren't running for political office they're being treated as though they are. The Republican set loose "oppo" researchers to dredge (or Drudge) up every speck of information about Bergdahl and his family in a concerted effort to get people to really despise this young man.

With Obama's foreign policy the accent has been on diplomacy over invasion and occupation and this shift stands in stark contrast to the incessant warmongering of the George W. Bush and Dick Cheney years. And it enrages right-wingers.

President Obama inherited the neo-con foreign policy of targeted assassinations, indefinite detention, drones, and occupation. He tried to placate the war hawks by embracing their methods and continuing some of their worst policies, such as the 2009 "surge" of American troops in Afghanistan of which Bowe Bergdahl was part.

After 9-11, the Bush Administration made every effort to mimic Israel's national security policies (as if Israel's never-ending war against the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors had some magic formula for fighting terrorism). The Israelis are known to sometimes swap living prisoners for the remains of their soldiers. If the United States, like Israel, is fighting terrorism then why are so many American neo-cons now making such a big deal about prisoner exchanges?

Bowe Bergdahl (promoted to Sergeant while in captivity, a rank he does not accept) showed altruism and courage in joining the Army. He wanted to serve his country. After seeing the reality of what the United States was doing in Afghanistan he began to question the mission. Good for him. If he is guilty of desertion or going AWOL, or whatever, he has already paid for his "crime" by being held under animal like conditions by some faction or another of the Taliban for five years.

In his beautifully written book, No Good Men Among the Living (2014), the journalist Anand Gopal describes a tiny bit of the complexity of the multidimensional war in Afghanistan that Bergdahl was trying to get a grip on. Gopal notes that the civil war of the 1990s had "compartmentalized Afghanistan's nearly forty ethnic groups into political blocs." (p. 22)

"In 2013," Gopal notes, "there were, by some estimates, 60,000 to 80,000 armed private security employees in the country, almost all of them working for Afghan strongmen. Add to this 135,000 Afghan army soldiers, 110,000 police, and tens of thousands of private militiamen working directly for the Afghan government, the US special forces, or the CIA, and you have more than 300,000 armed Afghan men all depending on US patronage." (p. 275-276)

"Of the $557 billion that Washington spent in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011," Gopal writes, "only 5.4 percent went to development or governance." (p. 273)

"Throughout the south, the US military supported showpiece projects - a new well or a refurbished school, in some cases even whole model villages. But if the south was dotted with Potemkin villages, Afghanistan itself had become a Potemkin country, built almost entirely for show." (p. 274)

"As the situation devolved, President Karzai and top officials began pointing fingers bitterly at the United States. Meanwhile, Washington began to view the corrupt central government as the key roadblock to its mission - even though American patronage was ultimately responsible for the mess. In frustration, US officials redoubled their efforts to circumvent Kabul and deal with local power brokers, unwittingly cultivating a new generation of strongmen." (p. 274)

With this level of complexity and the overall lack of understanding on the part of the American public about what has been going on in our name in Afghanistan all these years is it any wonder that opinion polls show that 80 percent of Americans say they want the U.S. military out of there? Yet Fox and other elements of the Republican Noise Machine, along with duplicitous shills like Chris Matthews, are play-acting as if the war in Afghanistan is still as popular back home as was World War Two.

Obama put the disgraceful and illegal Guantanamo Gulag to the only positive purpose it has ever served: winning the release of an American soldier. And of course he's attacked for it. Senator Diane Feinstein wants to complain about the legal niceties of informing Congress 30 days before any prisoner exchange involving Gitmo.

But isn't it a little late to start splitting hairs about the legality of an Executive action regarding the prisoners at Gitmo when the nature and existence of the prison itself has thrown out every tenet of domestic and international law regarding the rights and treatment of prisoners of war? They're still force-feeding prisoners there who use hunger strikes as the only means to show their desperation in the Kafkaesque world they find themselves.

We see the spectacle of an advanced industrial nation of 318 million people quaking in its boots over the release of five Talibs as if they're super-human and the United States is super vulnerable. What's the point of spending on defense five times more annually than any other nation on earth only to be so full of fear and self doubt that sacrificing one of our own is being held up as more desirable than releasing a handful of Afghans?

What has weakened America perhaps more than anything else is its tragic turn away from the values of the Nuremberg Trials where Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson insisted that even the most loathsome Nazi mass murderers deserved a trial. Gitmo is a national disgrace. Torturing prisoners is a national disgrace. The war in Iraq was a national disgrace. Knocking off people with drones is a national disgrace. And shitting all over an American POW no matter what you might think about his politics or him personally is also a national disgrace.

The Republicans and the Right have exploited fear for political gain for so long now they have infantilized enough of the American people and the press to work their will. Those stupid color-coded "terrorist threat" alerts might be gone but the underlying mentality remains. When this level of fear is combined with the permanent political campaign, not only is our ability to tackle the serious problems facing the nation undermined, but also innocent people's lives are destroyed.

This media assault on Sgt. Bergdahl proves that the Right now applies its opposition research techniques of the permanent campaign to slime anyone, including a POW, who might prove politically useful. To apply these smear tactics against an American POW and his family is truly loathsome despite the buy-in from bastions of the "liberal media." The Far Right and Fox News have succeeded in setting the agenda of the mainstream media narrative on Bowe Bergdahl's release.

The nation has changed since September 11, 2001, and not for the better. But we did it to ourselves. We have met the enemy and he is us.