What was Susan Rice thinking when she praised Bowe Bergdahl?
By Tom Rogan US politics Last updated: June 3rd, 2014
Susan Rice has done it again.
Defending the deal that freed Sgt Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban, the national security adviser declared that Bergdahl had "served the United States with honour and distinction". Yet, as far back as 2010, the Pentagon found that Sgt Bergdahl had actually abandoned his post. Former members of Bergdahl's unit are also condemning him – and now, as the Telegraph reports, the Army has let it be known that it may still pursue an investigation that could lead to desertion charges.
Rice's comments raise a number of issues.
First, they highlight the Obama administration's poor grasp of PR. Surely it must have known that using the word "honour" to describe Bergdahl would sparked anger. In the US military, walking off post isn't regarded positively. Moreover, as I noted yesterday, Bergdahl's unit – 1st Battalion, the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment – lost seven men during its 2009-10 deployment. Parachute units like the 501st take great pride in their elite status within the military. Many Americans believe that administration is elevating a traitor (as they see it) above those killed in action. Visit an online US military discussion forum and you'll see what I mean.
The Telegraph US editor Peter Foster argues that the war-weary American public may be ready to draw a line under this episode. But the same is unlikely to be true of a military that is already uncertain of the President's leadership. While Obama is seen as a supporter of troop welfare, it's less clear that he understands military culture. This dynamic is apparent at all rank levels. Take the "icy" reception Obama received last week at West Point Military Academy. Or read about former defence secretary, Bob Gates, and his confusion at Obama's "orders" to generals.
To be fair to Obama, some of this mistrust is unavoidable. The US military is a conservative institution that found instinctive comfort with President Bush's blunter, more aggressive rhetoric. As a proud east coast liberal (read this excellent Politico study) and former law professor, Obama comes from a very different world to that of many young soldiers and marines.
Still, some of the administration's problems are of their own making. Consider how the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs rebuked John Kerry during last year's Syria debate in Congress. US military personnel are taught to expect decisive action from their commanders. Obama's appointees do not provide this.
Quite frankly, it's strange that Rice was even chosen to represent the Obama administration on this deal. Following the Benghazi controversy (in which Rice was accused of misleading Amerians over the September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi), the White House must have thought that Bergdahl's release would give Rice an opportunity to re-enter the public debate at a moment of success. But she must have been aware of the 2010 Army investigation that put Bergdahl's conduct in doubt. Why was she not far more cautious in her praise?
Instead, she's run headlong into another scandal. Once again, her words have betrayed her.