According to his critics, President Barack Obama can’t seem to do anything right.
But the latest example of Obama-hate syndrome is truly bizarre, since it was triggered by the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, something that would normally elicit bipartisan cheers. But with Obama as commander in chief, things have dramatically shifted.
Republicans who shamelessly promote increased defense spending and pre-emptive war are now in full attack mode, claiming that the president—in approving Bergdahl’s release in exchange for the release of five senior Taliban operatives from detention in Guantanamo Bay—violated federal law by failing to notify Congress.
In one fell swoop, the Obama administration has gone from claiming a political victory, for returning a soldier home after five years, to being mocked by conservatives for “negotiating with terrorists,” an absurd claim that ignores the Reagan and Carter administrations’ prisoner-release negotiations with Iran.
What makes this latest episode unusual is that the typical character assassination and conspiracy theories routinely leveled against Obama by the right wing have been extended toward Bergdahl and his family. Allegations that Bergdahl may have deserted his post, had grown disillusioned about the war and may even have collaborated with the enemy have turned a homecoming celebration into another round of recriminations against the president.
Attacks on the president’s record on military and veteran matters—ones that have grown in the wake of the recent Veterans Affairs scandal—are outrageous, inaccurate and fueled by simmering racial animosity. Obama has been one of the most responsive American presidents ever to the plight of military families and veterans. First lady Michelle Obama has made providing better opportunities for military families a personal cause.
Ironically, the more Obama has extended his hand to improving veteran benefits, ensuring that returning soldiers have job opportunities after deployment and ending two costly wars, the more he’s been attacked as un-American. In an ingenious twist of reality, Republicans get to have their cake and eat it, too. They consistently call for military solutions to political problems, approve deficit spending for global wars, and then refuse to support American soldiers and their families during peacetime.
In the sixth year of his presidency, too many conservatives still see Obama as an illegitimate president and unworthy commander in chief. Republican senators and congressional representatives say as much by claiming that this latest prisoner exchange will encourage terrorists to kidnap more Americans.
This is hogwash.
As The Root’s David Swerdlick points out, the administration’s inability to anticipate some of these predictable attacks leave it perpetually vulnerable to both real and manufactured crises. Yet despite the administration’s missteps, Obama’s record of support for the military and for veterans should have shielded him from the vitriolic tone and tenor of Republican assaults. The fact that Obama is forced to go on the defensive and is repeatedly characterized as weak, incompetent or unpatriotic is tragic.
Obama’s racial background reflects the increasingly diverse makeup of the U.S. military, something that goes a long way toward explaining the disparate treatment of VA hospitals located in predominantly minority and poor areas (pdf). A hidden aspect of the VA scandal is the fact that Congress has, for decades, left this vitally important branch of military benefits underfunded and on its own.
Conservatives have mastered the perverse art of portraying Obama’s genuine empathy for military veterans and their families, which led to this recent prisoner release, as something that compromises national security.
Hawkish politicians who long for new and costly wars—most recently in Ukraine—lampoon the “Obama doctrine,” which has replaced pre-emptive war with negotiation and reluctance to spill American blood needlessly.
These latest partisan attacks against Obama reveal the blatant hypocrisy that animates the GOP’s pro-military posture. The Republican Party’s brash saber rattling during wartime gives way to a harsher truth that remains something of an open secret among politicians: The “party of no” refuses to offer robust financial support, benefits and jobs to military veterans and their families.
Americans, meanwhile, remain firmly committed to supporting the military but more ambivalent about the political necessity and financial costs of unwise wars and military interventions. Obama’s foreign policy mirrors this: a commitment to the judicious use of military force and, just as important, a compassionate regard for the anonymous men and women fighting, as well as for their families.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the recently released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.