June 3, 2014

Ever since Theodore Roosevelt, it has been the policy of the United States government to never, ever negotiate with enemies, unless it involves surrender. Since Ronald Reagan, the policy has been to never, ever negotiate with terrorists under any condition.

Well, as of Sunday, all of that has changed. President Obama has become the first President to do what no other President has done: He has negotiated with Taliban terrorists.

Keep in mind it is the Taliban who kill teachers and hang children. it is the Taliban who blow up voters and families out shopping. It is the Taliban who do these things to spread a fear that advances their political agenda. By any honest assessment, the Taliban are terrorists. This, at least, is non-negotiable. Or, at least it was until our Emperor changed that. Or maybe he has changed the meaning of "terrorist." Or just maybe, he deems the Taliban as friendly.

The Obama administration evidently believes that they haven’t negotiated with terrorists to release Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. On the Sunday talk shows, both Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel insisted that this deal does not undercut U.S. policy on not negotiating with terrorists.

To be fair to the administration, the notion that America does not negotiate with terrorists per se is false. Around the world, CIA officers have long engaged in direct and indirect communications with various terrorist organizations. In many ways this is a necessity, helping inform policymakers and avoiding unnecessary escalation.

This dynamic is exemplified in Lebanon. Here, the relationship between the CIA and the Lebanese Hezbollah is always tense and confrontational (Hezbollah works hard to disrupt CIA source-recruitment efforts), but by maintaining lines of communication, both sides benefit.

Still, there’s a huge difference between this type of dialogue and what we’ve just seen between the U.S. and the Taliban. Where CIA discussions are necessarily covert and limited, the release of these five senior Taliban officials is overt and of strategic significance.

Why? Consider the released officials for a moment. They include two men responsible for the murders of thousands of innocent Shiite civilians (including Iranian diplomats), and another who is the Taliban’s former network-facilitation chief, responsible for establishing alliances with other terrorist organizations.

Put simply, these men are the worst of the worst of the worst. And now they’re free.

I believe there has always been much more at stake here than one man. For example: What does this deal portend for the future of Afghanistan?

Having promised to withdraw all U.S. forces by 2017, Obama has now returned the Taliban some key strategic-operations officers. While Obama claims the men’s new residency in Qatar will mitigate their threat, a year from now they’ll likely be back in Afghanistan. As noted, these are true fanatics — tier-one Taliban. They harbor an ideological hatred for Afghan democracy.

Correspondingly, the Afghan government is furious it wasn’t consulted.

But this deal has also granted the Taliban a remarkable propaganda victory (Mullah Omar is crowing). Most damaging, Obama has empowered the Taliban’s belief that he can be blackmailed. As I’ve argued before, along with its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) allies (predominantly the UK), and the Afghan Army, what America has accomplished in Afghanistan over the past few years is extraordinary.

Unfortunately, combining Obama’s timetable and Hagel’s suggestion that “this could provide some possible new bridge for new negotiations,” the administration is encouraging the Taliban to believe they can “wait out” or “play out” the United States. In Afghanistan as in any counter-insurgency, trumpeting strategic disinterest is a terrible mistake.

And that’s exactly what Obama is doing.

But the problems with this deal echo beyond Afghanistan. Deluding themselves in the belief that foreign policy “credibility” doesn’t matter, the president’s supporters are proclaiming a great victory. Their glee speaks to a callous ignorance. After all, while this deal won’t necessarily inspire the Taliban and al-Qaeda to kidnap more Americans — that ambition has always been a high priority for these groups — it may well encourage others.

This is an especially acute concern with regards to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, two entities that have long valued kidnapping as a way to extract political concessions.

Up until now, however, they’ve been somewhat deterred by their belief that the United States will respond with decisive force to any kidnapping attempt. This deterrence was reinforced by President Bush’s policy toward Iran in 2007–2009 Iraq. Following a U.S. seizure of Iranian personnel, Iran sponsored a kidnapping attempt in which U.S. soldiers were executed. Bush then authorized a far more aggressive strategy to confront Iran (which remains highly classified).

Regardless, Iran always calculates policy with reference to the risks/rewards in a given scenario. The unprecedented nature of the Bergdahl deal may encourage Iran to resume its kidnapping fetish. For CIA officers around the world, this is a major operational security concern.

This episode epitomizes the administration’s defective foreign-policy strategy. Susan Rice is right to proclaim Sergeant Bergdahl’s return a “joyous day” “to be celebrated,” but there is a broader story here, and she’s once again shamefully spinning it.

Dan Pfeiffer once promised that Obama would never negotiate with Republican suicide bombers; there’s a sad flippancy to the administration’s salesmanship of its doing precisely that here. Their pretense is that the deal brings great benefits but no real costs — when there are many. Americans in uniform deserve more honesty.

We believe that the Constitution of the United States speaks for itself. There is no need to rewrite, change or reinterpret it to suit the fancies of special interest groups or protected classes.