Monday, July 28, 2014
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Obama's craziest idea yet: Ending a war

It it crazy to try to end a war, and exchange prisoners...after 13 years?

Obama's craziest idea yet: Ending a war

Accompanied by President Barack Obama, Jani Bergdahl and Bob Bergdahl speak during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Saturday, May 31, 2014 about the release of their son, U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl, 28, had been held prisoner by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. He was handed over to U.S. special forces by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees held by the United States. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Accompanied by President Barack Obama, Jani Bergdahl and Bob Bergdahl speak during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Saturday, May 31, 2014 about the release of their son, U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl, 28, had been held prisoner by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. He was handed over to U.S. special forces by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees held by the United States. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

On the surface, it looks like the most outrageous. most lopsided prisoner exchange in human history. To make matters worse, there's no guarantee that some day a few years from now, the released prisoners won't be back on the battlefield, waging jihad all over again. But it's that ratio that really strikes you -- one prisoner, for 350 of theirs.

Did I just type "350"? Yes, I did -- because I was talking about Israel's policy of exchanging Palestinian prisoners of war for its own troops. Despite the never ending conflict in the Middle East, the government in Jerusalem has released an estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners -- for just 19 of its captured soldiers, as well as the remains of eight troops who had been killed.

So by Israeli standards, President Obama drives a pretty hard bargain. This weekend, the White House secured the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last American solider held captive in Afghanistan by the Taliban, by agreeing to release only five members of the Taliban who've been held at Guantanamo Bay. The prisoners have been tranferred to Qatar, a U.S. (sigh) ally.

In a development that I'm sure will shock and awe you, some Republicans are up in arms about the deal to reunite Bergdahl with his family here in the U.S. That's whack for a bunch of reasons, but let's talk about the two most important ones:

1) Prisoner exchanges are as American as apple pie:

Over at Esquire, some left-wing commie pinko named...er, let's see...Lt. Col. Robert Bateman has a piece looking at how America -- like our friends over in Israel -- once were big-time believers in such exchanges, goimg back to George W...the real one:

George Washington had a problem as he tried to beat the British. Well, really he had a lot of problems, but central among them was the issue of prisoners. See, for the first four years of our Revolution, George Washington pretty much got his ass kicked by the Brits, four ways from Sunday. Along the way a whole lot of his men were taken captive. He needed them back. So he negotiated prisoner exchanges. That was pretty normal, and so a lot of Americans were exchanged for enemy prisoners.

So this happened in every war. In World War II -- true story -- about 475,000 German prisoners of war were held in 46 states. (Can you imagine what today's Republicans, who wet their bed over the idea of a handful of terrorism suspects in a modern Supermax prison, would have thought of that arrangement?) To end American involvement in the Vietnam War, our negotiators in Paris agreed on a prisoner exchange with North Vietnam -- one of those freed now sits in the U.S. Senate, John McCain. He's now criticizing the Bergdahl deal. Can you make this stuff up? No. You can't.

2) This hasn't been emphasized enough, but the Bergdahl deal is happening because the U.S. is trying -- for the second time in the last five years -- to do something that might strike the John McCains of the world as a little wacky...end a war. In this case, we're talking about a conflict in Afghanistan that has lasted for nearly 13 years -- longer than Vietnam, longer than any war in U.S. history, and there have been a lot of wars in U.S. history.

It's pretty obvious that our Afghanistan experience won't end with a surrender ceremony on an aircraft carrier (although there should be a ticker tape parade for our troops, who have given so much). Same as every other world power that's fought there. Getting out means getting the best deal possible, and bringing home as many of our soldiers as soon as possible. The Bergdahl deal was a part of that process -- and there's nothing wrong with that. Instead, we've become a nation that's great with projecting lethal shock and awe, but finds the slightest move toward peace to be actually shocking.

Truth be told, Obama shouldn't stop at the Bergdahl exchange. He should ask Congress to repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that was passed in 2001, to make it clear that the miltary response to 9/11 is officially over. The release of these five Talibani is a reminder that it's possible to close Gitmo -- trying and imprisoning those who committed crimes against the U.S. on American soil -- and it's something we must do.

Much of what America has done in response to the terrorism threat has been wildly successful, particularly in the area of transportation safety. It's impossible to prevent every lone wolf terrorist -- like the Fort Hood shooting -- in a free society, but the bottom line is that there's been no large coordinated attacks on U.S. soil since 2001, bin Laden is gone and al-Qaeda is a shell of its former self. The parts of our anti-terror efforts that have been an abject failure are the parts we never needed in the first place -- fighting ill-defined (or worse) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gitmo and indefinite detainment, and torture, and unwarranted spying at home . Obama can't move to end the remnants of these soon enough.

America has survived all kinds of threats -- a civil war, a sneak attack on a major military base, and, yes, 9/11, but none of that has changed human nature. The threat of Islamic extremists abroad means we need to be smart about knowing our enemies and protecting our borders, but it doesn't mean America has to be in a perpetual state of war, or that we can't negotiate with adversaries when it serves our interests. "Leaving no man behind" is an American tradition.

At least in the America that used to be recognizable.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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