Bill Clinton's critics in Arkansas used to say that he would rather climb a tree and tell a lie than stand on the ground and tell the truth. In other words, Clinton would lie when the truth would do -- and when telling the truth would be easier.
The saying might apply to the Obama administration's public statements about Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier released from captivity in Afghanistan in a trade for five Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo Bay. There is substantial evidence to suggest that Bergdahl abandoned his post in 2009 -- he went AWOL, he deserted, whatever one calls it, Bergdahl walked away from the U.S. Army and his fellow soldiers while on duty in a war zone.
It wasn't necessary. Rice, speaking for the White House, could have said something to the effect that "Bowe Bergdahl is a troubled young man who made a terrible mistake. Nevertheless, he is an American soldier, and the United States wants him back. The president had a difficult decision to make in balancing the release of the Taliban detainees with this country's longstanding policy of not leaving U.S. forces behind in a war zone, no matter the circumstances."
That would not have quieted the controversy over the Taliban trade; critics would still maintain it was a terrible precedent and will increase the danger to America and its allies around the world. And it would not have quieted the controversy over the administration's decision not to inform Congress about the Taliban release, as specifically required by law. Lawmakers -- including some in the president's party -- would still complain about that.
But it would have denied the administration's critics a devastatingly effective argument. First, President Obama himself appeared with Bergdahl's parents in rare Saturday remarks in the White House Rose Garden. And then Rice — who had been asked specifically about the circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance — said, "He served the United States with honor and distinction."
In another Sunday appearance, on CNN, Rice suggested Bergdahl had been "captured … on the battlefield" — a claim backed up by none of Bergdahl's fellow soldiers with him the night he disappeared. The military fully investigated the Bergdahl case in the months after he disappeared in 2009. The investigation reportedly concluded that he had willfully abandoned his post.
Now, top Army officials say there will be a new "comprehensive, coordinated" investigation to "better learn from [Bergdahl] the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity," according to Army Secretary John McHugh. In other words, Bergdahl served with so much honor, and so much distinction, that he is going to be investigated for possible desertion charges.
At a news conference in Poland Tuesday, Obama tried to undo a little of the damage Rice had done. "With respect to the circumstances of Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban, we obviously have not been interrogating Sergeant Bergdahl," the president said. "He is recovering from five years of captivity with the Taliban. He's having to undergo a whole battery of tests, and he is going to have to undergo a significant transition back into life. He has not even met with his family yet, which indicates I think the degree to which we take this transition process seriously — something that we learned from the Vietnam era."
Obama continued: "But let me just make a very simple point here, and that is, regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don't condition that."
Obama pointedly left room for a reassessment of Bergdahl's actions. Rice didn't. And it will be a long time before the administration hears the end of her claim.