TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Didn’t Negotiate With ‘Terrorists’ for Bergdahl

Republicans continue to lambaste Barack Obama for releasing five senior Taliban figures from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in exchange for the captured U.S. solider Bowe Bergdahl. But the story is more complicated than they say

+ READ ARTICLE

The GOP has several complaints about the controversial deal the Obama Administration negotiated with the Afghan Taliban for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Topping the list is the idea that President Barack Obama has violated a sacred rule: Never talk to terrorists. “It has long been America’s unwavering, bipartisan policy not to negotiate with terrorists, especially for the exchange of hostages,” argues George W. Bush’s former U.N. Ambassador, John Bolton. “By trading to release hostages, we are invariably putting a price on the heads of other Americans.” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio agrees, warning that the deal “could encourage future terrorist kidnappings of Americans.”

It may be a political maxim that we don’t talk to terrorists. But that’s not always how it works in practice. The Carter administration had long and intricate negotiations with the Iranians who took dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran in 1979 (and whom Carter himself described as terrorists), winning the hostages’ release after Carter agreed to unfreeze about $11 billion in Iranian assets.

Ronald Reagan’s White House also horse traded with the Iranians for hostages—secretly trading arms for the release of Americans held in Lebanon, in what came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair. (Bolton, to his credit, acknowledges and condemns this infamous episode.)

In the mid-1990s Bill Clinton met with Gerry Adams, leader of the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, then still on the State Department’s terror list. (It was removed after peace accords in 1998.) The British government considered Adams himself a terrorist and urged Clinton not to see him.

During the Iraq War, the Bush administration cut deals with Sunni insurgents in Iraq’s Anbar province—working with and even paying people who had been killing American soldiers.

Even Israel, which is not known for its kid-glove treatment of terrorists, has a recent history of doing business with its most despised enemies. In 2011, the Israeli government freed more than 1,000 prisoners in return for Hamas’ release of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Despite that history, however, Washington is quite wary of rewarding terrorists who seize hostages. In recent years, al-Qaeda has reaped millions of dollars from kidnapping ransoms paid by the west. “Much of the money comes with the complicity of Western governments,” the Los Angeles Times reported last fall—but apparently from ones “that have rebuffed British and American exhortations not to pay ransoms.” The logic, as noted by Rubio, is clear: Pay up for hostages and you encourage the snatching of more hostages.

The difference with Bergdahl, as Obama argues, is that he wasn’t really a hostage grabbed by terrorists. He pretty neatly fit the classic definition of a prisoner of war. He had just left a military outpost in an obvious war zone while (presumably) wearing his uniform. History is loaded with examples of nations—including America—making deals to free their soldiers.

And however nasty the Taliban may be, it’s not really a “terrorist” enemy as we commonly understand the word. The group is not on the State Department’s official list of terrorist organizations and has has long been a battlefield enemy in the ground war for control of Afghanistan. It is not plotting to, say, hijack American airplanes—even if it does have sympathies with people who are. Ditto the Taliban leaders released over the weekend. They are members of a savage and deplorable organization. But unlike, say, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, they have no history of plotting attacks on the U.S. homeland.

Given all that, the real debate isn’t whether Obama negotiated with terrorists—he didn’t. The mystery lies in the particulars of the deal. Why trade five prisoners for just one—a soldier whom many veterans are bitterly calling a deserter? Why treat such a complicated deal as a resounding triumph, complete with a dramatic White House news conference?

Obama may have cut a lousy deal. But he hardly violated a sacred American principle.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser