Bergdahl tests public values

The tempest over former Army POW and Idaho native Bowe Bergdahl teases out two themes: The problem of “dirty hands” in international relations and the madness of an American gulag, the Guantanamo Bay prison.

There also is the question of Bergdahl himself, and the circumstances of his 2009 capture by the Taliban. In a blink, the ecstasy of a POW homecoming morphed into a mouth-foaming hatefest, magnified by TV’s chattering classes. The rumoring is a public version of the kids’ game “telephone,” as the message gets progressively mangled. Was American blood shed in searching for then-Pvt. Bergdahl? As New York Times’ Charlie Savage and Andrew Lehren reported last week, there is no evidence to suggest a link. Still, Bergdahl’s former army “buddies” loathe him, and peg him as a deserter or, worse, a traitor. There will be a resolution, perhaps in the form of a court martial.

The “dirty hands” question is more complex. First, we negotiate with terrorists, a violation of moral norms. As columnist Charles Krauthammer reminds readers, we always negotiate with terrorists: “Everyone does, while pretending not to. The Israelis, by necessity the toughest of all anti-terror fighters, in 2011 gave up 1,027 prisoners, some with blood on their hands, for one captured staff sergeant.”

Dirty hands can be reduced to an ends-justify-the-means MO. In cases of emergencies, or “exigent circumstances” as the Obama Administration argued with Bergdahl, we secretly wish morally grounded leaders mix it up to achieve a greater good. “We know he is doing right when he makes the deal because he knows he is doing wrong,” wrote political philosopher Michael Walzer.

In practice, the trade reveals the absurdity and injustice of Guantanamo Bay itself, where a prisoner’s chances of release are inversely proportional to how important he is. Prisoners from Yemen are in limbo thanks to the so-called underwear bomber, who was trained in Yemen. Due process has been given the heave-ho. Guantanamo is the dirty hands embedded in the dirty hands of horse trading with the purported enemy.

Reading John F. Kennedy’s University of Washington foreign policy speech from 1961 may be the best salve to the Bergdahl saga.

“We cannot, as a free nation, compete with our adversaries in tactics of terror, assassination, false promises, counterfeit mobs and crises,” Kennedy said. “We cannot, under the scrutiny of a free press and public, tell different stories to different audiences, foreign and domestic, friendly and hostile.”

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