Under normal circumstances the freeing of a long-term prisoner of war would be greeted with big fanfare by Americans. Not these days. Instead, Obama's Bergdahl debacle reveals once again a deeply divided nation.
Sometimes it helps to play with counterfactuals to better analyze a situation. So let's posit for argument's sake that President Barack Obama would not have traded Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo. And let's further imagine that Bergdahl was either killed by his Taliban captors or died due to his poor health as the Obama administration has said in justification of its actions. What would the political and public reaction be?
There would be a massive outrage that Obama had not done everything to bring back the lone US prisoner of war (POW) in Afghanistan held for five years by the Taliban.
Angry tea party
The same Tea party zealots that are now calling for Obama's impeachment would have labeled him a coward for letting the letter of the law stand in his way to save Bergdahl and probably called for his impeachment for dereliction of duty to protect US soldiers.
The same lawmakers that are currently grilling the White House over its failure to inform Congress before the prisoner swap would be clamoring for an investigation into whether the president did everything to free Bergdahl. And the 45 percent of Americans who according to polls disapprove of the deal would probably tell pollsters that they disapprove of Obama's inaction that led to the death of Bergdahl.
To be sure, there are serious legal issues with the White House decision to forego Congress in the swap deal. There are also legitimate questions about the very nature of the exchange. There is also no question that the White House badly botched its PR effort on the issue. And of course, Bowe Bergdahl's alleged military record also did not help the Obama administration.
Still, if one accepts the notion that Bergdahl's life was endangered - and there is so far no contrary evidence, just speculation - then Obama was caught between a rock and a hard place. And he took the entirely plausible decision to save Bergdahl, notwithstanding all the ethical and legal problems connected with it. Other presidents probably would have done the same thing. That Obama's decision is the subject of a robust public debate is par for the course.
But the vitriol and rage that has been triggered by what is after all the release of America's only POW in Afghanistan is astonishing even for the Obama administration which is certainly no stranger to being the target of verbal abuse. When conservative lawmakers who usually can't be outdone in their support for the military question whether the Pentagon sticks Bergdahl in a German military hospital to avoid sending him back to the US or right wing bloggers compare Obama to Stalin and argue that he may be mentally ill, it's clear America's political culture is in deep trouble.
While that is certainly not new, the ideological fervor that is being displayed in the debate over Bergdahl and also in the ouster of Eric Cantor once again shines a spotlight on the growing fissures in American society. At least from an international perspective that is a worrisome trend.