Let us pause to observe a moment of silence for a time when politics stopped at the water’s edge. That quaint notion of national unity was mortally wounded immediately after the attack in Benghazi, and finally succumbed to complications after a prisoner exchange for an American POW in Afghanistan.
There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing on foreign affairs. In fact, it’s our duty as citizens to engage in our democracy. You want to protest for peace? Burn the Dixie Chicks’ CDs? Criticize how a president is waging a war or how Congress is funding it? Go nuts. The First Amendment isn’t a trophy in a glass case on the mantel. You’re supposed to use it.
There is a difference, however, between publicly disagreeing with the President’s handling of foreign policy and using international incidents to gain a political advantage. The GOP’s aberrant handling of Benghazi provides a sad example. In 2012, the Romney campaign was looking for an opportunity to highlight what they saw as the President’s weakness on foreign policy. To be clear, Romney had every right to make that case.
But Romney didn’t even wait to find out how many Americans had died in Benghazi before claiming the President "sympathize[d] with those who waged the attacks." RNC Chairman Reince Priebus at least waited until a minute after midnight on September 11 before tweeting, "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic." That last part was true, but not in the way Priebus intended.
Out of the murders of four Americans, a political scandal was born. More than a dozen hearings, 25,000 pages of reports, and 50 briefings later, and the biggest thing we’ve learned is that congressional Republicans have no shame when it comes to politicizing terrorism. Recently, the National Republican Campaign Committee solicited donations via an email that invited Republicans to "become a Benghazi watchdog" by making a contribution, literally using terrorism for political profit.
I would have thought that we could all agree that bringing POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl home from captivity in Afghanistan was the right decision. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander there, said the policy of leaving no one behind in a warzone is "unequivocal." But now politics doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. It keeps going all the way into the dark room where Bergdahl was being held prisoner.
Until recently many Republican politicians and tea party activists were demanding that the President bring Bergdahl home, but then they Black-flipped when the President brought Bergdahl home. The President had done exactly what they demanded of him, so Bergdahl, once a tragic hero, had become a traitor not worth saving.
The worst example of this was John McCain. In February he supported a prisoner exchange with the Taliban to free Bergdahl. With alacrity rivaling Romney’s craven grandstanding on Benghazi, McCain didn’t wait for Bergdahl’s return stateside before criticizing the trade as "ill-founded" and a "mistake." For what it’s worth, in 1973 the US traded North Vietnamese prisoners to free Capt. McCain and other U.S. POWs.
The rank hypocrisy by Bergdahl’s former champions is the least of it. In 2012—before anyone had ever heard of Benghazi—Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone exposed the GOP’s behind-the-scenes political machinations over Bergdahl. Congressional Republicans threatened the White House and State Department that they were prepared to use any prisoner exchange for Bergdahl to paint the President as an appeaser who sympathized with terrorists.
"They keep telling me it's going to be Obama's Willie Horton moment," Marc Grossman, the special envoy to Afghanistan, warned the White House.
Yes, the President broke a law requiring 30 days notice before doing this, but if I had to deal with this Congress I wouldn’t tell them what time it was if I had the last clock in the world.
In his recent commencement address at West Point, the President articulated a vision for American leadership in the world, but that will only be possible if Republicans provide a loyal opposition. The reason we don’t leave anyone behind is because we’re supposed to be in this together. When Republicans are ready to put their country ahead of their partisan political interests, there’s a place waiting for them at the grown-ups’ table.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and The Quorum Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford.