When an emotional Jani and Robert Bergdahl strode into the White House Rose Garden on Saturday to the share the emotional announcement by President Obama that their son, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl would be returning home after being held captive for five years by the Taliban, it's unlikely they could have foreseen that their family would soon be under attack by the right-wing media, or that Robert Bergdahl would be depicted on Fox News as a possible terrorist sympathizer; mocked on national television as he awaited a reunion with his ailing son.
They couldn't have foreseen it because I don't think it's ever happened before. I don't think we've ever seen a dedicated media campaign to not only undermine a returning prisoner of war, but to also cast doubt onto the soldier's family; to portray them as un-American even as they prepare for their reunion.
Instead, Fox News has helped transform the prisoner swap involving Taliban detainees into "an increasingly vicious partisan issue," as Buzzfeed described the Republican decision to go into relentless attack mode, complete with enlisted publicists and strategists, to subvert the return of an American POW.
It's symptomatic of a conservative media mini-mob that now obsessively politicizes everything, and does it all with the knob turned up to 11.
So in the name of partisan warfare there can be no trace of empathy or understanding for a family that spent nearly 2,000 days wondering if their soldier son would ever come home. Wondering if he was being tortured or treated humanely by the Taliban as he passed years away in solitary confinement. There can be no waiting to get the facts; to actually hear from Bowe Bergdahl himself and let him explain the 2009 actions that led to his capture. For the attacks against Obama to stick, Bergdahl and his family became the target of a character assassination crusade.
Note this fact: A lot of the current Bergdahl-related theatrics being played out in the right-wing media appear to have been in the works for quite a while. For years, in fact. In 2012, Michael Hastings reported in Rolling Stone that when talk first surfaced of a possible prisoner swap between the U.S. and the Taliban, Republicans immediately began playing election year politics [emphasis added]:
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.
Fast-forward two years and that's exactly what's unfolding. The only twist is that as part of the political retribution, a military family is being smeared, too.
Yes, the unique circumstances of Bergdahl's capture (was he a deserter?) and his release are legitimate areas for debate. Once he's back on U.S. soil, the military will be able to fully review how he came into enemy hands and determine whether further punishment is in order. And Robert Bergdahl's unorthodox and aggressively activist campaign to secure his son's release has certainly been newsworthy.
But with Fox News and the helm of the restless, turbo-fueled outrage machine, thoughtful debate isn't allowed. Instead, this was a typical headline from one right-wing site this week: "Bergdahl: From POW to POS?", while The Drudge Report condemned the soldier as a "rat." As blogger Charles Johnson noted, by Tuesday, conservatives at Hot Air and Breitbart had posted no less than 42 Bergdahl items/rants between them.
Despite the coordinated media hysteria, many experts in the field downplay the announced wartime exchange as being historic, unusual, or even controversial. "This is a legitimate prisoner swap," Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel and professor of military history at Ohio State University told USA Today.
And John B. Bellinger III, who served as the top lawyer at the National Security Council and then the State Department under President George W. Bush, noted the Taliban prisoners released from Guantanamo were already heading for freedom soon:
In my view, the U.S. would not be able to hold them forever. Indeed, it is likely that the U.S. would be required, as a matter of international law, to release them shortly after the end of 2014, when U.S. combat operations cease in Afghanistan.
In other words, the White House was able to secure the release of an American citizen in exchange for five Taliban detainees who were likely to be set free next year anyway. And by the way, when negotiations to free Bergdahl first began, the Taliban insisted the U.S. release 15 prisoners and provide a cash payment. In the end, they received five men and no money in exchange for Bergdahl.
On Fox, the debate over whether Bergdahl deserted his post had long ago been settled, so they quickly moved onto the next phase of the campaign, which was suggesting, without any proof, that the U.S. soldier was actually a Taliban sympathizer who might have fought against American forces.
"Can you imagine if it turns out that he was actually collaborating," Brian Kilmeade wondered out loud on Fox.
That mindset begins to explain why Kilmeade talked about Bowe Bergdahl's father this way:
I mean, he says he was growing his beard because his son was -- because his son was in captivity. Your son's out now. If you really don't, no longer want to look like a member of the Taliban, you don't have to look like a member of the Taliban. Are you out of razors?
The phrase 'dripping with contempt' barely covers the tasteless attack Kilmeade launched against a father who'd just spent every day of the previous five years trying to secure his son's release. For Fox talkers, that human element is irrelevant.
Meanwhile, Fox contributor Laura Ingraham stressed "More revelations coming out about the left-wing father of Sergeant Bergdahl I mean, left wing doesn't even begin to describe him." So being "left wing" means you should be mocked while you await your son's return from a Taliban prison?
For Fox contributor Allen West, Robert Bergdahl's use of Arabic in remarks from the Rose Garden were evidence he had "sanctified" the White House "and claimed it for Islam."
More from Fox on Robert Bergdahl:
-"Is he an "Islamic sympathizer?"
-"He grew it out of sympathy wit the Taliban"
-"If he wasn't so light-skinned, he actually looks like a terrorist."
-"He looks like Muslim"
All of these attacks were launched in the name of scoring partisan points against Obama for okaying the prisoner swap. Can you imagine though, if months from now word leaked out that Obama had a deal on the table to get the only American prisoner home from the Afghanistan War and the president refused to secure the man's freedom? If Obama supposedly "disdains" the troops by winning Bergdahl's release (so says Fox's Ralph Peters), what would feral Fox pundits have said if Obama left an American to die in solitary confinement knowing the soldier's health was deteriorating?
Recall that Republican Senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte were in favor of bringing Bergdahl home -- until President Obama achieved it. In December, Allen West sneered that the Obama wasn't working hard enough to recover Bergdahl because there were "no camera highlights in it for him"; now that Obama has done so, West says he should be impeached.
So for the Obama obsessed, the Bergdahl's story's a win-win: They attack Obama for securing the soldier's release and they would have mercilessly condemned Obama for failing to secure the soldier's release. For the critics, it's a game.
For a military family from tiny Hailey Idaho, it's much more.
Crossposted at Media Matters for America.