Belmont Club

Moral Triumph

Many experienced politicians survive controversy, not by changing who they are, but by making alterations to style and a few minor concessions to policy.   Amy Chozik of the New York Times describes how Hillary plans to rejuvenate her campaign.  The article says Hillary Clinton’s handlers plan “new efforts to bring spontaneity to a candidacy that sometimes seems wooden and overly cautious … they want to show her humor. … they want to show her heart”.

New dresses, color combinations, scripted jokes.  There will be a lot of changes to style.  In policy not so much. In a nod to the refugee crisis overwhelming Europe Hillary told journalists that although some may not realize it, the Syrian situation was a “global crisis”, noting she was long a voice urging more action.

Calling the crisis “heartbreaking,” Clinton said that the issue was one that “the entire world now sees doesn’t just affect the Syrian people; it affects all of us. That’s what I’ve been saying for years.”

Clinton also said she supported doing more to arm moderate Syrian rebels early on in their fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad, a position that President Barack Obama disagreed with. Asked whether Obama’s foreign policy caused the crisis, Clinton said that “the world’s policies” were responsible.

“I advocated for — as I say — a more robust policy. But sitting here today, I can’t say that would have, on its own, made a difference, because this had to be an international effort,” she said.

It was an acknowledgement by Hillary of failure — the “world’s failure” and not hers to be sure —  but it was uttered for the purpose of putting aside the problem and not fixing it, at least until the campaign implemented the serious business of style.  The politician’s estimate of what is important was captured in a quote in Chozik’s piece: “Experience does not matter to them. What matters is you appear genuine.”

Form, not function. Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post describes the triumph of the spin doctor’s art when he focused on what he calls president Obama’s greatest achievement:  managing to make The Base feel good about itself despite its obvious and glaring failures.

This may be the most surprising of President Obama’s foreign-policy legacies: not just that he presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions, but that he soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy.

Starvation in Biafra a generation ago sparked a movement. Synagogues and churches a decade ago mobilized to relieve misery in Darfur. When the Taliban in 2001 destroyed ancient statues of Buddha at Bamiyan, the world was appalled at the lost heritage.

One reason is that Obama — who ran for president on the promise of restoring the United States’ moral stature — has constantly reassured Americans that doing nothing is the smart and moral policy. He has argued, at times, that there was nothing the United States could do, belittling the Syrian opposition as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.”

The president is a supreme snarkster and possesses the genuine knack for depicting any disaster as a moral triumph. Physical setbacks don’t bother him because he has the uncanny ability to make people feel good about what they might have formerly been ashamed.  He has a ready-put down for any “crazies” who might disagree with him and  parlayed this skill into the highest office in the land. An example of his masterful ability to turn news lead into gold was his handling of the Bowe Bergdahl hostage exchange.

Bergdahl’s exchange for five high-ranking Taliban fighters, including several wanted for mass murder and war crimes, was on the face of it a bum deal.  Yet it was portrayed by Obama as a moral triumph, even though there were indications that all was not as it seemed. MSNBC reported at the time:

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and President Obama have both defended the deal. Obama said he would make “no apologies” for the deal and at a Congressional hearing on June 11, Hagel said that while the administration “could have done a better job” keeping lawmakers informed, the deal was the right thing to do, “and we did it for the right reasons – to bring home one of our own people.”

But one soldier’s family—who blames Bergdahl for their son’s death—said Monday that they’re furious about the return to active duty.

“This is another attempt to give credibility to a deserter to protect the decision to free five extremely dangerous Taliban,” Sondra Andrews, the mother of 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews, told NBC News. Andrews was killed in eastern Afghanistan in September 2009 when, the family said, he was searching for Bergdahl.

The doubts were laid as the administration assured the public Bergdahl would return to active duty. “After being initially treated in Germany, Bergdahl completed therapy and counseling at an Army hospital in San Antonio and will begin working a desk job at Fort Sam Houston. He’ll be living in the barracks and two soldiers will reportedly help Bergdahl continue his transition into regular life, The New York Times noted.”  Susan Rice was sent to ABC News to declare Bergdahl had “served the United States with honor and distinction.”

We got our own back. Happy ending.

Now the AP reports the Army has changed its mind about Bergdahl.  An investigation has concluded he should be charged with desertion as well as what the newspapers euphemistically refer to as the charge of “misbehavior before the enemy”.  It is an unusual specification.

“I’ve never seen it charged,” Walter Huffman, a retired major general who served as the Army’s top lawyer, said of the misbehavior charge. “It’s not something you find in common everyday practice in the military.”

Bergdahl could face a life sentence if convicted of the charge, which accuses him of endangering fellow soldiers when he “left without authority; and wrongfully caused search and recovery operations.”

The charge is Article 99 of the UCMJ, whose relevant text is below.  It is probably rare because it is so shockingly accusatory. In fact, the offenses it lists sound like something out of dramatic fiction. Article 99 reads:

Article 99—Misbehavior before the enemy

Text. “Any member of the armed forces who before or in the presence of the enemy—

(1) runs away;

(2) shamefully abandons, surrenders, or delivers up any command, unit, place, or military property which it is his duty to defend;

(3) through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct endangers the safety of any such command, unit, place, or military property;

(4) casts away his arms or ammunition;

(5) is guilty of cowardly conduct;

(6) quits his place of duty to plunder or pillage;

(7) causes false alarms in any command, unit, or place under control of the armed forces;

(8) willfully fails to do his utmost to encounter, engage, capture, or destroy any enemy troops, combatants, vessels, aircraft, or any other thing, which it is his duty so to encounter, engage, capture, or destroy; or

(9) does not afford all practicable relief and assistance to any troops, combatants, vessels, or aircraft of the armed forces belonging to the United States or their allies when engaged in battle; shall be punished by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.” ….

Maximum punishment. All offenses under Article 99. Death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.

This is the book they are going to throw at him. Not only are they not planning to thank Bergdahl for his service, the military may propose to toss him in the slammer for life — a mercy considering Article 99 prescribes the punishment of “death”.  Perhaps they didn’t seek the death penalty in order to leave alive at least one of the seven people who were caught up in the hostage fiasco.

Newsweek’s Michael Ames reports accusations brought by a decorated officer that the administration may have derailed ongoing negotiations to free Bergdahl in order to insert their own deal.

Lieutenant Colonel Jason Amerine was one of the first U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan. He landed there with an Army Special Forces A-Team in late October 2001 … Until this past January, Amerine worked at the Pentagon, where he led an Army team ordered to bring home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a mission that was expanded to include several civilian hostages held by Taliban-aligned militants in Pakistan….

In 2013, Amerine lured the Taliban to a series of secret talks that identified a solution, but then hit a wall in Washington’s bureaucratic maze. As he wrangled more with federal agencies in D.C. than with the Quetta Shura in Pakistan, Amerine reached out to Representative Duncan Hunter, a Marine veteran and Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Amerine’s deal was stalled and when the smoke cleared only Bergdahl was exchanged while the other Western hostages were left behind. In the process the administration had managed to concede vastly more to the Taliban than Amerine’s bargain. Instead of getting 7 hostages back, including Bergdahl, for one drug dealer the administration got just one — Bergdahl — in exchange for 5 immeasurably more valuable Taliban commanders.

When Bergdahl was finally released last year in a trade for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Hunter complained that a far better deal brokered by Amerine was ignored. Worse still, six Western civilians, including two Canadians and a newborn child, were left behind, held by terrorist groups protected by the Pakistani government, a pivotal U.S. ally in the global war on terror….

The coordination Hunter sought never came, so Amerine’s team forged ahead on its own. It continued negotiations to release all seven hostages in exchange for just one Taliban-aligned drug kingpin, Haji Bashir Noorzai, who is serving a life sentence in U.S. federal prison….

Their vows were quickly forgotten, and when Bergdahl was released on May 31 under terms much more favorable to the Taliban, Hunter received no prior notice. Instead of releasing Noorzai, a tribal leader with a long history of cooperating with American authorities (and who was lured to New York under the premise of sharing information about terror financing and then detained by the Drug Enforcement Administration), the government released five Taliban detainees, two of whom had been military commanders.

One of the civilian hostages is now dead and the remaining are still in Taliban hands. Now they’re fixing on throwing Bergdahl in jail and throwing away the key. It’s a massacre — of Westerners. In the end no one may be at liberty except the Taliban commanders. Obama’s “moral triumph” doesn’t look like much. In fact, a cynic might conclude he point of the swap was to free the Taliban commanders. All the Americans, including Bergdahl, were essentially expendable in the process.

It may look that way.  However cynics would doubtless be reproved and reminded the president is moral. Larger considerations were at stake that made this sordid tableau into a kind of noble sacrifice.  “NBC and CBS Hosts See Prisoner Swap As ‘Good Sign’ of ‘Diplomatic Breakthrough’ With Taliban”, a contemporaneous news story went. For example David Gregory said “this is potentially a good sign if you think about the future of Afghanistan.”

The future of Afghanistan?  It seems hard to see, a year on, what difference Berghdahl made.  One might ask the same question about the West: what future are you talking about?  The irony is that the more triumphs Obama hands the world, the less future it has.  Europe and America find themselves in situation where the more victories they are presented, the worst things get.

Maybe that is because  at each stage the path is charted by the uncertain flare of “moral triumph” instead of the light of reason and we travel the rocky path illuminated by these fairy lights the way the donkey follows a carrot hung by a stick in front of his nose.  Ironically an age which fashionably denies transcendence is slave to morality made on social media.  The psalms according to Twitter.  The Gospel according to Facebook.

Publics were persuaded that leaving MENA in a vacuum was an act of moral triumph.  Now accepting the refugees from its wrack without limit is equally an act of moral triumph.  Exchanging 5 mass murderers for Bowe Bergdahl was an act of moral triumph.  Now that the killers are loose somehow locking up Bergdahl for life will doubtless be, as everything before it was, an act of moral triumph.

Triumph upon triumph, but why is it so dark?

We’re as stuffed with moral righteousness as a Christmas turkey yet none the better for it.  Perhaps its not surprising that Hillary can announce her plans to be strategically spontaneous in the New York Times. She may be certain that no one will notice and the sad thing is she may be right.  The public is now actually  conditioned to feel good about disasters because it is a new source of “moral triumph”.  Overrun us!  Overrun us! The worse things get the more we are reminded that “we deserve it”.  We open our mouths in sudden understanding at the planted idea and like the donkey, set off in pursuit of the carrot.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.


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