Joe Gandelman: Obama shows vulnerability over prisoner exchange
June 7, 2014
To this day there's some dispute over who originated the phrase "grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory." What is certain is we're now seeing living examples of the phrase, demonstrated by both the Obama administration and the Republican Party.
Victory's jaws are surely sore from the pulls by Obama & Co. and the GOP in a controversial prisoner exchange, where American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was traded for five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo. We now see six prisoners free — and how political hubris creates a seemingly inescapable prison.
For Republicans, the controversy has all the makings of a negatively-defining event that could sway independent voters and irk some centrist Democrats. Not only does it entail the American government dealing with, if not outright terrorists, then terrorist enablers and supporters, the prisoner exchange itself might have legitimately broken the law. On top of that, it includes the release of a prisoner who some claim wasn't worthy of the soldiers who risked or lost their lives unsuccessfully trying to free him years ago.
The deal's implementation displays a political dumbness on the part of the White House that hasn't been seen since last October when Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz convinced GOPers in Congress that it'd be just peachy for Republicans to shut down the government over the budget. According to NBC's Chuck Todd, the White House was caught "flat footed" by the negative response to the Bergdahl deal, since it had expected "euphoria" over the release.
Yes, Bergdahl was freed. But it sounds like someone was drinking the same Delusion Flavored Kool-Aid that former Vice President Dick Cheney successfully served when he predicted Iraqis would greet their American liberators by throwing flowers and garlands.
The administration didn't properly consult Congress. California Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein wasn't pleased, and the White House briefing of Senators later didn't defuse bipartisan anger. The Obama administration argued the deal had to be done quickly and was legally covered in a signing statement. And, indeed, the political reality is that any announced dealings would have fizzled due to the GOP's consistently obstructionist behavior. But the administration acted on shaky legal grounds.
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said President Obama "clearly" broke the law because "signing statements are not law. Signing statements are the president's opinion about what the law should mean. Now, it may be that the law is unconstitutional, a violation of his power as commander in chief, but no court has held that. The law is on the books, and he didn't follow it."
University of Georgetown law professor Jonathan Turley nailed it on his blog, writing: "Putting aside the violation of federal law, do you believe that the United States should negotiate with groups like the Taliban or make trades with such captors? If not, where do we draw the line — with soldiers to exclude citizens? There are clearly arguments to be made by those who believe that we should negotiate with terrorists but the current official policy is that we do not."
So the GOP is poised to score big political points? Probably not.
After being in 24/7 anti-Obama rage/demonization mode for so many years, even with having a REAL issue fall into their lap — on that has authentic nuance that could alienate many Americans by raising troubling issues as terrorists seek weaknesses to advance their battle against democracies — the Republican Party is in already rhetorical, overreach overdrive.
Almost as fast as you could say "birth certificate" or "Benghazi," the inevitable partisanship parroting the tiresomely predictable conservative political entertainment media and the calls for impeachment have begun.
Amid genuine questions about whether Bergdahl was a deserter, one conservative site calls him "the Democratic party's ideal type soldier." So much for winning over centrist Democrats. A Fox News host said Bergdahl's father looks like a Muslim due to his beard, while Sarah Palin said she'd like "Duck Dynasty's" bearded anti-gay Phil Robertson to run for President. A beard's meaning is in the eye of the bigot.
If the GOP could choose serious policy discussion over polemics, they could score serious political points. But Republicans, like the White House, just can't resist pulling that bright, shiny object out of victory's mouth.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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