Republicans are almost uniformly criticizing President Obama’s decision to swap five Taliban fighters at Guantanamo Bay for the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American held hostage in Afghanistan. But many of the administration’s loudest critics have previously demanded that it do more to bring Bergdahl to safety. Since his release, these lawmakers are emphasizing their criticism of Obama’s handling of the prisoner exchange while downplaying the successful return of an American servicemember.
In the clearest contradiction, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in February that he “would be inclined to support” “an exchange of prisoners for our American fighting man,” like the one Taliban officials had offered in 2012. He has since labeled Obama’s deal “ill-founded” and a “mistake.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) also thinks that “the administration’s decision to release these five terrorist detainees endangers U.S. national security interests” and “sets a precedent that could encourage our enemies to capture more Americans.” But since 2011, Ayotte has issued multiple press releases and public statements calling on the Obama administration to “redouble its efforts” to find Bergdahl. She touted a provision in the Senate’s Fiscal Year 2015 defense authorization bill “that presses Pakistan to fully cooperate in the search for SGT Bergdahl” and specifically mentioned Bergdahl in her Memorial Day address.
“We also must continue to keep Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held prisoner by the Taliban for nearly five years, in our thoughts and prayers — and I renew my call on the Defense Department to redouble its efforts to find Sergeant Bergdahl and return him safely to his family,” she wrote just one week ago.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) — the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — has also said that the U.S. “must make every effort to bring this captured soldier home to his family.” But appearing on Fox News just days after Bergdahl’s release, Inhofe criticized the administration for agreeing to free “people who have killed Americans, people who are the brain power of Taliban.”
Still, not all conservatives oppose Obama’s decision. John Bellinger, who served as an adviser to President George W. Bush, has characterized the swap as fair, since the United States would be required to return prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay back to Afghanistan as the military conflict comes to an end.
“I’m not saying this is clearly an easy choice but frankly I think a Republican…confronted with this opportunity to get back Sgt. Bergdahl…would have taken this opportunity to do this,” Bellinger said, adding, “I think we would have made the same decision in the Bush administration.” It appears that many of the administration’s loudest critics would as well.
Mashable points out that “At least three prominent Republicans appeared to offer praise on Twitter for the rescue of American POW Bowe Bergdahl — only to later backtrack, scrubbing their tweets or websites of any mention of the soldier after questions arose over the prisoner swap that freed him.”
McCain has gone back and forth over the years:
In June of 2013, as news broke of a restart of Afghanistan peace talks, the senator told Congressional Quarterly News that he opposes “the release of five Taliban which was in the background of previous conversations about it.”
In February of 2014, McCain appeared on CNN’s Anderson Cooper and explained, “at that time the proposal was that they would release — Taliban, some of them really hard-core, particularly five really hard-core Taliban leaders, as a confidence- building measure. Now this idea is for an exchange of prisoners for our American fighting man. I would be inclined to support such a thing depending on a lot of the details.”
After Bergdahl was finally released, McCain appeared on CNN and characterized the trade as a “lousy deal.” “Well, first of all, I said it twice. Depending on a lot of the details, in other words, do not trade one person for five hard core,” he explained.