The verdict appears to be in: President Barack Obama is incompetent and irresponsible, if not altogether wicked, a) because he didn’t do all that he could possibly do to save Ambassador Chris Stevens, killed in a 2012 terrorist attack at Benghazi, and b) because he did all that he could possibly do to free an American soldier, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, until last week held captive by the Taliban for five years. But two molehills do not a mountain make.
What these two episodes share in common is this: The attention they have generated, verging on the hysterical, illustrates the ever-advancing trivialization of American political life. Before our very eyes, the ability to distinguish between minutiae and substance, between the story that deserves 15 minutes of attention and the issue of genuine importance, is vanishing.
At the State Department, Ambassador Stevens’s colleagues will rightly mourn his passing. Yet when it comes to demanding accountability, how does the loss of this one diplomat, however valued, compare to the thousands of Americans killed, the tens of thousand wounded, and the trillions of dollars expended in the Iraq war, which both parties in Washington, abetted by the media, have already conveniently forgotten?
If Obama’s trade of five Taliban operatives as the price to purchase Bergdahl’s freedom represents an affront to Congress, then what are we to make of his initiating a war against Libya back in 2011 without having secured prior legislative approval? Speaker of the House John Boehner wants hearings held to investigate White House actions in securing Bergdahl’s release. Why not convene hearings to inquire into the legacy of Obama’s extra-constitutional war to overthrow the despicable Colonel Moammar Khadafy? Ousting Khadafy was ostensibly going to advance the cause of democracy. Instead of democracy there is anarchy. Hasn’t Boehner noticed? Doesn’t he care?
If Susan Rice, then US ambassador to the United Nations, deserves to be hung by her thumbs for having misstated the circumstances of the Benghazi incident, then what should be the fate of those Bush administration officials, not to mention gullible members of the media, who credited Saddam Hussein with possessing nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and cited that as a pretext for preventive war? In the interests of proportionality, may I suggest boiling in oil? Rice’s sin, if sin it was, ranks as venial. Should the architects and promoters of the Iraq war venture into the confessional, they won’t be let off as easily.
What makes the latest manufactured brouhaha particularly unseemly — no, make that reprehensible — is the rush to defame Bergdahl. Hearsay and gossip, compounded by inflammatory allegations that other soldiers may have died during the course of their efforts to find him, are reducing Bergdahl to the status of pariah.
With the smell of bonfires wafting through the air, the mood seems ripe for a witch hunt. One result, whether intended or not, is that the post-9/11 willingness to waive due process continues to widen. At first, it applied only to foreign terrorists, imprisoned without charge and subjected to torture. But they were not Americans.
Subsequently, it included Americans said by intelligence agencies to be in league with foreign terrorists. Although nominally citizens, they were deemed unworthy of constitutional protection. As a result they became subject to extrajudicial execution.
Now we have Bergdahl, not only a citizen but also a soldier. With her gift for misspeaking, Rice, since promoted to national security adviser, recently appeared on television to praise Bergdahl for serving with “honor and distinction.” Rice obviously had no idea what she was talking about. Yet it’s equally obvious that she was engaging in vapid Washington-speak. Like the routine legislative action said to be “historic” or the political rival referred to as “my good friend,” terms like “honor” and “distinction” in Washington are devoid of meaning and content.
Now, it may turn out that Bergdahl was a less than perfect soldier. In that regard, an investigation conducted according to the provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice will determine the facts. If those facts show that Bergdahl was guilty of misconduct, he will be held accountable. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made the point explicitly even as he has affirmed the principle of presumed innocence until guilt is proven.
For the rest of us, there are two questions. First, are there some American soldiers who when they get in trouble aren’t worth saving? Second, if the answer to the first question is yes, who gets to decide?
Now imagine that Bowe Bergdahl is your kid and consider those questions again.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.