US President Barack Obama is an artist of political propaganda. Both his greatest admirers and his most vociferous opponents agree that his ability to manipulate public opinion has no peer in American politics today.
So how can we explain the fiasco that is his decision not only to swap five senior Taliban terror masters for US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, but to take ownership over the decision by presenting it to the American people in a ceremony with Bergdahl’s parents at the White House Rose Garden? Clearly Obama overreached. He misread the public’s disposition.
This much is made clear by the immediate criticism his actions received from the liberal media. It wasn’t just Fox News and National Review that said Obama broke the law when he failed to notify Congress of the swap 30 days prior to its implementation.
It was CNN and NBC News.
MSNBC commentators criticized the swap. And CNN interviewed Bergdahl’s platoon mates who to a man accused him of desertion, with many alleging as well that he collaborated with the enemy. It was CNN that gave the names of the six American soldiers who died trying to rescue Bergdahl from the Taliban.
What was it about the Bergdahl trade tipped the scales? Why is this decision different from Obama’s other foreign policy decisions? For instance, why is the public outraged now when it wasn’t outraged in the aftermath of the jihadist assault on US installations in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, in which US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were murdered? Politically, Obama emerged unscathed from failures in every area he has engaged. From Iraq to Iran to Syria to Libya to Russia and beyond, he has never experienced the sort of across the board condemnation he is now suffering. His political allies and media supporters always rallied to his side. They always explained away his failures.
So what explains the outcry? Why are people like Senator Dianne Feinstein, who have been supportive of Obama’s nuclear appeasement of Iran, up in arms over the Bergdahl swap? There are three aspects of the Bergdahl deal that distinguish it from the rest of Obama’s foreign policy blunders.
First, the Bergdahl deal was conducted in an unlawful manner and the White House readily acknowledged that it knowingly broke the law by not informing Congress 30 days in advance of the swap. This brazen lawbreaking angered Obama’s loyal allies in Congress who, like Feinstein, were insulted by his behavior.
Second, Obama initiated the story and made himself the sole owner of the swap.
Obama didn’t have to make the Bargdahl swap a story about his foreign policy. He chose to. As commentators have argued, if Obama had simply ordered the Defense Department to issue a press release announcing the swap the story probably wouldn’t have caused more than the normal amount of controversy.
And whereas Benghazi was a story about jihadists attacking, and Obama was pilloried – and defended – for his response to an act of aggression initiated by US enemies, Obama presented the Bergdahl swap as his brainchild. So it is impossible to blame anyone else for this move, or wish it away.
As the administration saw it, the public would rally around the leader over this feel-good story.
Obama obviously believed that the Bergdahl trade would help him to surmount his opponents’ criticism over the Veterans’ Administration scandal and other issues.
And this is where his failure to understand the disposition of the American people comes into play.
The third aspect of the swap that distinguishes it from his other foreign policy failures is that by organizing the ceremony at the Rose Garden, and making it a story about himself, Obama denied his supporters the tools they have used in every other instance to explain away his failures and justify his counterproductive decisions.
Obama sailed into office by presenting himself as a non-ideological pragmatist. Obama recognized that the public was tired of foreign policies based on ideology. George W. Bush lost public support for the war in Iraq, and for his foreign policy goal of bringing freedom to the Islamic world more generally, when his ideologically charged rhetoric of American exceptionalism stopped matching the situation on the ground.
A year after Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, the sight of US military contractors being lynched in Fallujah soured the public on American exceptionalism. In Obama, they hoped that they found the antidote to Bush – a man who promised to replace ideology with hard-nosed pragmatism.
In the event, Obama turned out to be even more driven by ideology than Bush was. Obama is the anti-Bush not because he matches Bush’s ideology with pragmatism. He is the anti-Bush because he matches Bush’s grand foreign policy based on American exceptionalism with his own grand foreign policy based on American moral deficiency.
He made this clear most recently at his commencement address at West Point last month where he stipulated that “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example. We can’t exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everybody else... .”
As to American exceptionalism, Obama sneered, “What makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”
But while Obama’s critics have pointed out the radicalism at the heart of his foreign policy from the outset of his presidency, his supporters were always able to explain it away.
Obama’s appeasement of the Iranians was pragmatic.
We don’t want a war there, they say.
His support for the Muslim Brotherhood is not radical. It too is pragmatic, they soothe.
And so on and so forth.
As for Benghazi, in the fog of war, the media preferred its commitment to Obama’s reelection over its responsibility to report the truth of what happened.
Obama’s success in getting away with serial foreign policy failures, and his success in hiding the radical ideological basis of his decisions has always owed to his supporters’ ability to plausibly deny both the failures and the ideological motivation for his actions.
His Rose Garden announcement made such spin all but impossible. Americans are not particularly interested in foreign policy. But there are a few things that they won’t buy.
They won’t buy that a man who comes to the White House sporting a Taliban beard and praising Allah in Arabic is a normal American father.
They won’t buy spin that describes a deserter as an exemplary soldier.
They don’t want to free five senior terrorists and mass murderers in order to buy Bergdahl’s release.
In believing that the public would side with him and Bergdahl and Bergdahl’s dad against critics of the deal, Obama showed that for all his propaganda prowess, he doesn’t understand the public.
The public didn’t oppose the war in Iraq because they thought the US is morally deficient. They opposed the war in Iraq because Bush wasn’t winning it. And the public believed that Bush’s push for the abstract goal of democracy lay at the heart of the failure on the ground.
For nearly six years, Obama and his supporters have managed to fend off allegations that his foreign policy is even more ideological – and far more radical – than Bush’s by channeling the public’s aversion to pie-in-the-sky rhetoric and obfuscating facts. But the Bergdahl announcement at the Rose Garden ended all of that.
The reason Obama is being denounced for the Bergdahl swap is because he orchestrated a radical spectacle. Try as he may to castigate critics of the deal as partisan and cynical, Obama cannot pretend away the fact that the ceremony he arranged and oversaw was an open celebration of an American defeat, by the US president and the unsympathetic parents of an accused deserter.
And worse still for Obama’s protestations of pragmatism, his decision to take sole ownership of the swap revealed his ideological myopia. Only someone blinded by a worldview in which America is morally deficient could have thought that Americans would join him and the Bergdahls in celebrating an American defeat.
And now everyone knows what makes him tick.
The writer is the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East.