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Conservative Critics of the Bergdahl-Taliban Swap Have Some Explaining to Do

U.S. Army/Getty Images

It's difficult to work up sympathy for the conservatives second-guessing the negotiated release of an American POW in Afghanistan, when they and their fellow travelers spent Monday doing things like this and this and this and debating whether Bowe Bergdahl should have been rescued at all on Fox News.

But despite all that, they take tremendous umbrage at the suggestion that their actions provide any insight into their beliefs, and particularly at the suggestion that they think we should've left Bergdahl behind.

They have a point. The term "left behind" carries a permanence to it that I can't justify attributing to anyone who works in or writes about politics for a living (a few thousand conservatives on social media notwithstanding). But unless they expand on their argument, it's the inescapable conclusion of their views.

The emerging conservative position on Bergdahl's release—and the many ways they've articulated it—has fueled the vitriol of abandonment supporters, but amounts to something different and incomplete. Not opposition to his return, per se, but a belief that the trade-offs the United States accepted to secure his release are unsupportable—a determination they've based in large part on an unforgiving examination of his conduct as a soldier.

That's the charitable interpretation.

But if the deal was bad, and was bad largely on account of Bergdahl's unworthiness of sacrifice, then this is an endorsement of the idea that he should be in Taliban custody today, perhaps traded down the line for something less valuable than five Guantanamo detainees who probably would've had to be released anyhow. If conservatives genuinely don't believe he should've been left behind, and find the suggestion offensive, then they must name a price they'd deem acceptable and that his captors would have deemed sufficient.

More on that in a moment. But to the extent that they've avoided the second half of the cost/benefit issue, it's by arguing that Obama would've been on firmer ground ordering a rescue operation, and avoiding tradeoffs altogether. Out of the other side of their mouths, though, they effuse outrage over the fact that U.S. troops died trying unsuccessfully to rescue this same deserter.

There's yet a third argument, conceptually distinct from the issue of Bergdahl's "worth," over whether President Obama had the authority to make the swap in the first place, without notifying Congress well in advance. Though I think he probably did, the ambiguity understandably triggers territorial impulses on Capitol Hill, and I expect Democrats and Republicans will interrogate the question heavily. But some conservatives are deploying this narrower controversy as a non-sequitur to draw attention away from unhinged critics, or to jumble every aspect of the story together in the service of political narrative building. 

I hold no brief for Bergdahl, and take no issue with the Army launching an inquiry into the circumstances of his disappearance. But the inquiry wouldn't be happening if the military hadn't first secured his release. Having secured his release, they can now determine whether he deserves to be disciplined by the U.S. military. If you agree with the military's leave-no-man-behind ethos, then this is the correct order of operations—even if the inquiry yields the most damning possible conclusions. Taking conservatives at their word—and here I'm talking about conservatives who weren't recently pressuring the White House to do more for Bergdahl—they're of the incoherent view that the agreed upon terms of his release weren't worth it, and that those terms should have been proportional to an evaluation of his conduct that can only be conducted with any legitimacy now that the deal is done.

If they object to the suggestion that they believe Bergdahl shouldn't have been rescued, or that they're mostly just using Bergdahl's release as a fresh opportunity to feed conservative animus, they need to clear a couple things up.