Opinion

The Great Debate

What’s Bergdahl worth? Everything.

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Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is finally back on U.S. soil, having landed on Friday. Five Taliban members enjoy newfound, if curtailed, freedom in Qatar. Time magazine features Bergdahl on the cover, and, speaking for many, ask “Is He Worth it?”

It’s a question that challenges the seminal premise of all war narratives. The “worth” of an individual soldier is not the issue. Bringing back those who fight for you, alive or dead, has been a central understanding of the rules of war for millennia — and is the basis for many of the most powerful scenes in literature.

Consider The Iliad, Homer’s ur-war narrative, which remains one of the most terrifyingly real depictions of the politics of war. Complicated prisoner exchanges open and close this epic tale of the decade-long war between the Greeks and the Trojans.

Brad-Pitt-in-Troy-2004-Movie-Image -- in armorThe Greek hero Achilles’ rage over a controversial prisoner exchange launches the narrative and the Trojan King Priam’s heart-rending appeal for the return of a fallen soldier ends it. Between these bookends the action roils with bloody battle scenes and snarling internal politics among both the Greek and the Trojan leaders.

The first word of The Iliad — “Rage” – describes Achilles’ response to the Greek leader Agamemnon’s complicated decision to release a prisoner of war to the Trojans. When a plague ravages the Greek camp, Achilles urges Agamemnon to appease the god Apollo by returning Chryseis, the daughter of the god’s priest, to Troy.

Obama’s impossible choices on Iraq

Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants, chant slogans in Baghdad

Iraq was a bold U.S. experiment in nation-building. It turned out to be a flop.

That’s what we’re learning as we watch what the United States achieved there evaporate after nine years of war, after nearly 4,500 Americans were killed, 32,000 wounded and $800 billion in U.S. taxpayer money spent.

When George W. Bush first ran for president in 2000, he expressed contempt for nation-building. It was a point he made in rally after rally. “I’m worried about the fact I’m running against a man,” Bush said, “who uses ‘military’ and ‘nation-building’ in the same sentence.”

What’s happening in Iraq? Some smart takes to help figure it out.

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The Iraq created in large part by the United States after the 2003 invasion appears to be collapsing.

The U.S. military disabled Saddam Hussein’s forces in short order. Then the straightforward part of the war ended. The American-led Coalition Provisional Authority made some fateful choices soon after Saddam’s government collapsed: to disband the Iraqi Army — one of Saddam’s main methods of keeping the nation together — and remove all Baathists from the government. Since the Baathists previously had a monopoly on power, they were the only ones who knew how to keep the country running.

Those factors, among many others — the withdrawal of the restraining hand of the U.S. military, a Shi’ite-dominated central government that has squeezed out the minority Sunni, and a largely sectarian Syrian civil war across an undefended border — are now playing out as Islamist insurgents sweep across the country in a massive offensive that has encountered minimal resistance from the reincarnation of the Iraqi Army.

How — and why — the U.S. must support Iraq

Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up inside a tent filled with mourners in Baghdad, during a funeral in Najaf A disaster is unfolding in Iraq. It is in part a result of the failed Syria and broader Middle East policies pursued by the West in the past four years.

Insurgents reportedly led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (also known as “ISIS”) have occupied Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and may be planning to push further south to the capital, Baghdad. ISIL, a largely Sunni jihadist group more radical than al Qaeda, seeks to establish an independent caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that he doesn’t “rule out anything” when it comes to U.S. involvement in the region, and some political analysts are already predicting possible U.S.-led drone strikes or even air strikes.

Leave no soldier behind – no exceptions

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The deal for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s return has hardly generated the praise the Obama administration might have hoped. Hard questions abound.

Will negotiating with terrorists encourage them to snatch more Americans? Is freeing five hardened Taliban leaders too steep a price?  Is Congress rightly upset by a president who may have defied the law in releasing Guantanamo detainees?

Most troubling are emerging questions about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture. Was he a true victim of war or a deserter whose actions jeopardized fellow soldiers called upon to search for him?

Ukraine: U.S. hawks regain their voice

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression is having an unintended effect on U.S. politics. It is generating a backlash against America’s retreat from world leadership.

That retreat was itself a backlash against President George W. Bush’s overextension of U.S. military power in Iraq and Afghanistan. Putin’s actions spotlight the consequences of America’s world wariness. Internationalists in both parties are expressing alarm about the shrinking U.S. role around the globe.

Republican hawks, long on the defensive after the war in Iraq and the missing weapons of mass destruction, have found their voice again. They are attacking President Barack Obama as weak and feckless. Even some Democrats are calling for a tougher response.

How to fix foreign aid

All war-torn countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, share a common characteristic — the absence or destruction of economic infrastructure. The lack of opportunity fuels frustration and unrest, giving violent actors an opening to destabilize fragile institutions.

The frustration in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other fragile states, exists despite Washington having spent billions of dollars in military and non-military aid to boost their economic development during the past decade. The lack of progress has fed a growing sense that U.S. foreign aid programs cannot establish economically viable systems.

I know this firsthand. As Deputy Under Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, I led a team of private-sector business leaders, agriculture experts, geologists and engineers in an effort to restore or create economic opportunity in war-torn communities. Our work focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, but it later expanded to Pakistan, Sudan and Rwanda.

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

Can Obama ever close Guantanamo?

Twelve years ago this month, President George W. Bush issued an order authorizing the U.S. military to detain non-U.S. citizen “international terrorists” indefinitely, and try some of them in military commissions. Within two months, those seized in the “war on terror” following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan were being sent to Guantanamo Bay.

A dozen years later, the United States is preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, ending “the longest war in American history,” as President Barack Obama observed on Veteran’s Day. Yet the Guantanamo prison — now notorious as the site of torture and other abuses — remains open.

Obama pledged to close Guantanamo as one of his first official acts in office. Yet nearly six years into his presidency, the prison continues to hold 164 foreign captives. Only three have been convicted of a crime.

How Blackwater fought two wars — and State Department red tape

This is an excerpt from Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror, by Erik Prince, published this month by Portfolio.

On March 27, 2009, President Obama stood at a podium in Room 450 of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington. Over his right shoulder was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; over his left, Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “Today, I am announcing a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the president said.

In the eight years since the United States had invaded Afghanistan, stability there had moved at a glacial pace, to the extent it moved forward at all. Taliban suicide bombings continued seemingly at will in the fledgling democracy. Insurgent aggression had prevented enough voter registration that the country’s landmark presidential elections, scheduled for May 2009, had to be pushed back three months. The United States had just come off its deadliest year of the war there, with 155 service members killed in 2008. In 2009, it only got worse.

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