Obama should pardon Bergdahl

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - John M. Crisp

— Last week the New York Times edi­to­rial board urged Pres­i­dent Obama to is­sue a blan­ket com­mu­ta­tion dur­ing the wan­ing weeks of his pres­i­dency of the ex­tremely long prison sen­tences handed out to many thou­sands of non­vi­o­lent, petty drug of­fend­ers.

This is a good idea. Our na­tion’s prison pop­u­la­tion has bal­looned dur­ing the war on drugs. In some cases pris­on­ers were sen­tenced ac­cord­ing to the point­less dis­tinc­tion be­tween crack co­caine and pow­der co­caine, re­sult­ing in dis­pro­por­tion­ately long im­pris­on­ments. Other pris­on­ers face many decades of con­fine­ment based on sen­tenc­ing guide­lines that were much harsher than those cur­rently in place.

Obama has al­ready par­doned or com­muted the sen­tences for about a thou­sand in­mates, but the clock is tick­ing for thou­sands more. Pres­i­dent-elect Trump’s nom­i­nated at­tor­ney gen­eral, Jeff Ses­sions, strongly op­poses sen­tenc­ing re­form and he has been highly crit­i­cal of Obama’s grants of clemency.

So for thou­sands of pris­on­ers who face un­con­scionably long sen­tences, the next few weeks are a mat­ter, al­most lit­er­ally, of life and death.

But thou­sands of pris­on­ers are an ab­strac­tion; Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is a hap­less, flesh-and-blood hu­man be­ing who is cur­rently await­ing a Fe­bru­ary court-mar­tial on charges of de­ser­tion and mis­be­hav­ior be­fore the en­emy. If con­victed, he could face life in prison.

Bergdahl’s lawyer has asked Pres­i­dent Obama for a pardon be­fore the end of his term; Obama should grant it.

By way of re­minder: Bowe Bergdahl got in trou­ble with the Army when he aban­doned his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was cap­tured by the Tal­iban. He spent five years in harsh con­di­tions, in­clud­ing soli­tary con­fine­ment and tor­ture. In May 2014, he was repa­tri­ated in ex­change for five Tal­iban mem­bers who were be­ing held in Guan­tanamo.

Obama en­dured con­sid­er­able crit­i­cism from the right for this ex­change, but it was the cor­rect de­ci­sion. Time was run­ning out for Bergdahl, and the cir­cum­stances of his cap­ture were un­known. Obama would have rightly been sub­ject to equal or greater crit­i­cism if he had left an Amer­i­can sol­dier to rot in en­emy hands.

As Bergdahl’s fail­ure to do his duty in Afghanistan be­came more ev­i­dent, I urged le­niency. Bergdahl was never men­tally pre­pared to serve in the mil­i­tary and cer­tainly not in com­bat. The Coast Guard dis­charged him for psy­cho­log­i­cal rea­sons af­ter 26 days of ba­sic train­ing, but the Army — in need of troops — in­ducted him un­der a spe­cial waiver that ig­nored ev­i­dence of his in­sta­bil­ity.

Then the Army sent him into com­bat in a du­bi­ous war in which Amer­ica had mostly lost in­ter­est.

Obama should pardon Bergdahl be­cause he is un­likely to get a fair trial un­der a Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. The com­man­der-in-chief-elect has al­ready pre­judged Bergdahl, call­ing him a “no­good traitor, who should have been ex­e­cuted.” “Thirty years ago,” Trump said, “he would have been shot.”

Trump never served in the mil­i­tary — he avoided Viet­nam with four stu­dent de­fer­ments and a plea of “heel spurs” — and he is un­likely to have an even-handed or sym­pa­thetic un­der­stand­ing of a vol­un­teer who was per­mit­ted to get in over his head.

Fur­ther, in Trump’s post-fact ad­min­is­tra­tion, Bergdahl will have a hard time de­fend­ing him­self. Here’s one ex­am­ple: it’s widely be­lieved that six sol­diers lost their lives search­ing for Bergdahl, but a care­ful Reuters re­con­struc­tion of events con­nected to Bergdahl’s dis­ap­pear­ance in­di­cates that the al­le­ga­tion sim­ply isn’t true.

Will ev­i­dence like this be taken se­ri­ously in an ad­min­is­tra­tion led by a man who’s al­ready made up his mind about Bergdahl and who is care­less in his use of facts? Un­likely.

Clearly, Bergdahl failed to do his duty in Afghanistan. He should prob­a­bly be pun­ished, per­haps even be­yond what he’s al­ready suf­fered. But life in prison is a sen­tence far too harsh.

Obama has plenty of other things to worry about right now, and so does our na­tion. But let­ting Bergdahl fall into the hands of a venge­ful, in­dis­crim­i­nate Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is likely to cre­ate just one more sad statis­tic from a gen­er­a­tion of sol­diers who have suf­fered far too much be­cause of our mis­guided Mid­dle East poli­cies.

Obama should pardon Bergdahl, while he still can.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed colum­nist for Tri­bune News Ser­vice, teaches in the English De­part­ment at Del Mar Col­lege in Cor­pus Christi, Texas. Read­ers may send him email at jcrisp@del­mar.edu.


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