The Real Story Behind the Prisoner Exchange

2014-06-03 Bergdahl Parents Press Conference
Bergdahl’s parents at a White House press conference.

As I understand it, the news cycle has gone something like this:

  1. Five detainees from Guantanamo were traded for the only American POW in Afghanistan, Bowe Robert Bergdahl.
  2. Republicans cry foul, making a variety of allegations about why the exchange was a bad idea, or at least not something to celebrate without reservation.
  3. Democrats mock Republicans for being willing to criticize everything they do, even when it’s the return of a POW.
  4. News stories from mainstream outlets start to validate some (but not all) of what Republicans were complaining about.

Let me give you two examples. The first comes from The Daily Beast and the headline says it all: We Lost Soldiers in the Hunt for Bergdahl, a Guy Who Walked Off in the Dead of Night. According to the story, Bergdahl deserted his post of his own volition (bad enough), which led to a vast manhunt that resulted in American soldiers dying while looking for him (worse) and culminated in strict orders that the American soldiers not speak of the incident at all (worse still). The article, written by one of the soldiers who was out risking his life and jeopardizing the greater counterinsurgency operations looking for Bergdahl, concludes by saying:

And Bergdahl, all I can say is this: Welcome back. I’m glad it’s over. There was a spot reserved for you on the return flight, but we had to leave without you, man. You’re probably going to have to find your own way home.

It’s a really poignant, fair, eye-opening piece. Read it. And then there’s this piece, published by conservative Mormon and Islamic scholar Daniel Peterson about some of the conservative complaints that are decidedly less reasonable. Peterson shoots down the theory that Bergdahl’s father “sanctified the White House for Islam” when he said, upon entering that building, “Bi ism Allah al-rahman al-rahim whih” meaning (in Arabic): “in the name of Allah the most gracious and most merciful.” Sounds ominous (if you have no idea what you’re talking about), but Peterson explains that the phrase “is routinely used at the beginning of formal statements and speeches in Islamic societies.” Bergdahl’s next words, apparently in Pashto instead of Arabic, were “I am your father.” Why speak Arabic and Pashto to a returning American POW? Because he spent the last 5 years speaking only Arabic and Pashto and is having trouble adjusting back to English, that’s why. 

In short: this is another one of those stories where everyone who is convinced that the other side is ripe for ridicule ends up looking rather ridiculous themselves. Whether it’s Mother Jones embarrassing itself by attributing the (entirely factual) notion that Bergdahl was  a deserter to “a few fringe types” (thus making The Daily Beast, USA Today, etc. all out to be right-wing nutjobs) or conservatives with zero comprehension of Arabic language or culture concocting weird fantasies about the White House being baptized into Islam1, people ought to settle down and just do a little bit of digging. And maybe a little bit of waiting.

As far as I can tell the reason that conservatives were ahead of the main stream media on this story is partially paranoia but also because conservatives are much, much more tied in to the US military and therefore knew early that something was up. I knew because I follow Michael Yon, and he issued an early warning on this story, saying:

Mixed Reaction on Bergdahl release from Taliban
Be careful with this. He needs to be welcomed home, given a full physical and time with his family, and then charges against Bergdahl should be considered.
A piece of information you likely never will see in the news: Taliban and al Qaeda shared joint custody of Bergdahl. He converted to a hardcore strain of Islam, according to reliable sources.

Yon linked to an Army Times piece citing “mixed” reaction from the military community. (He added information in further updates like this one and this one.) So the military community, which is no fan of Obama, was out early with suspicion about holding a press conference for the return of someone who had, by his own derelection of duty, ensured that other Americans never made it home. Now the Pentagon will review claims US soldiers killed during search for Bergdahl. Looks like there was at least some fire to go with all this smoke.