"We needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life."
So said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, an Army sergeant in Vietnam, of Barack Obama's trade of five hard-core Taliban leaders at Guantanamo for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a Taliban prisoner for five years.
The trade speaks well of America's 's resolve to leave no soldier behind. And the country surely shared the joy of Bergdahl's family on learning their son was alive and coming home. But this secret swap, as well as the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture and captivity, are likely to further polarize our people and poison our politics.
First, the price the Taliban extorted from us is high. We could be seeing these killers again on a battlefield after their year's detention in Qatar. Other Americans may have to suffer and perhaps die for our having freed these five from Guantanamo. Taliban leader Mullah Omar is proclaiming a "big victory" over the Americans, and it is a morale boost for the Taliban we are fighting.
As for the Afghan government, it was kept in the dark.
The message received in Kabul must be: The Americans are taking care of their own, cutting deals behind our back at our expense, packing up, going home. We cannot rely on them. We are on our own.
But as for the claim that we "never negotiate with terrorists," it is not as though we have not been down this road before.
During Korea, we negotiated for a truce and return of our POWs with the same Chinese Communists who had tortured and brainwashed them. During Vietnam we negotiated for the return of our POWs with North Vietnamese and Viet Cong who massacred 3,000 civilians in Hue in the Tet Offensive.
Jimmy Carter negotiated with the Ayatollah's regime to get our embassy hostages out of Iran. The Iran-Contra scandal was about Ronald Reagan's decision to send TOW missiles secretly to Iran, for Iran's aid in getting hostages released by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Bibi Netanyahu today insists that America not recognize a new Palestinian government that includes Hamas, for Hamas is a terrorist organization committed to Israel's destruction. Yet Bibi released 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011, many of them guilty of atrocities, in exchange for a single Israeli soldier held by Hamas in Gaza, Pvt. Gilad Shalit.
Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin and Nelson Mandela were all once declared to be terrorists heading up terrorist organizations — the PLO, the Irgun and the ANC. And all three have something else in common: All became winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.
One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Today's terrorist may be tomorrow's statesman. The remains of Lenin and Mao rest in honor in their capitals. Jomo Kenyatta, founding father of Kenya, was once the chieftain of the Mau Mau.
When it comes to negotiating with domestic hostage-takers, do we not, along with training SWAT teams to take them out, train men to negotiate with them? How many of us, with a family member held by a vicious criminal demanding ransom, would refuse to negotiate?
Yet, if those released Taliban are indeed "hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans ... on their hands," as John McCain charges, why were they not prosecuted and punished like the Nazis at Nuremberg?
America has sent a message to its enemies by trading five war criminals for Sergeant Bergdahl: The nation with a preponderance of the world's hard power has a soft heart.
And though America rejoiced with the parents of Sgt. Bergdahl this weekend, other troubling issues have begun to be raised.
Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, said on ABC that Bergdahl "served the United States with honor and distinction" and "was an American prisoner of war, captured on the battlefield."
But is this true? His fellow soldiers say Bergdahl was not missing in action, and not wounded. Disillusioned with the war, he walked away from his post.
In an e-mail to his parents three days before he went missing. Bergdahl wrote, "I am ashamed to be an American. And the title of U.S. soldier is just the lie of fools. ... I am sorry for everything. The horror that is America is disgusting."
For days, Bergdahl's fellow soldiers were out searching for him, risking their lives to prevent his Taliban captors from taking him into Pakistan. U.S. soldiers may have been wounded and some may have died in the attempt to rescue their lost sergeant.
Did Sgt. Bergdahl defect, did he desert, did he collaborate with the enemy? We do not know. But these charges will have to be investigated.
For if they are not, or if they are proven true and Bergdahl evades all punishment, it would be a blow to Army morale and widen the gulf between the Army and commander in chief that was on display at West Point a week ago.
Sergeant Bergdahl, one suspects, is about to become a famous and representative figure of his country's divisions in the Obama era.
(Syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan has been a senior advisor to three presidents, twice a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and the presidential nominee of the Reform Party in 2000. He won the New Hampshire Republican Primary in 1996.)