FEEDING ALLIGATORS: 
THE BERGDAHL TRADE

Before I go into detail on my observations on the Bowe Bergdahl hostage situation, I think it prudent to first discuss in the abstract the concept in play, in order that emotion not cloud the ramifications of negotiating with hostage takers.

THE PRINCIPLE:

There is a very simple, true, universal and essential principle of civilized society: When people give in to extortion, extortion increases. When people do not give in to extortion, the extortion stops.  Few people would dispute this reality. There may be deep and painful costs to standing up against extortion, but ultimately, in the long run the extortion stops, or at least dwindles to near nothing. Enduring the momentary (albeit deep) pain ultimately saves lives. Failing to endure results in long-term calamity. This is a tenet of civilized society which is ingrained in our psyche.

When you give in to terrorists, you don’t just tolerate terrorism, you encourage it.  Trading anything to a terrorist in return for a hostage is like fanning a fire. Trading five dangerous terrorists for a single hostage is like pouring gasoline on the fire.

There is a word for this type of negotiation and deal: “Appeasement.” Appeasement will forever be linked with one man, Neville Chamberlain, who went to Germany to try to pacify a dictator named Adolf Hitler. Hitler had engaged in saber-rattling and was threatening war if he was not given the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia. In essence, he was engaging in a diplomatic extortion.
Picture"So how did that work out for you?"
British Prime Minister Chamberlain participated in a conference in Munich in which the European powers bravely ceded parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in exchange for his promise not to invade and cause a war. The Czechs were not invited to the conference, and to this day refer to it as “The Munich Betrayal.”

On September 30, 1938, Chamberlain returned to England, waving a copy of the signed capitulation to the extortion and famously exclaimed, “I have returned from Germany with peace for our time.”

Within one year, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, and within the next six, over 60 million people—2.5% of the world’s population—had died as a result of that “peace.” Many believe that had the world stood up to Hitler at that point, WWII could have been averted.

At the time of Chamberlain’s return from Munich, future Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke presciently and eloquently in Parliament of Chamberlain's agreement:

“He was given the choice between war and dishonor. He chose dishonor and he will have war anyway.”

CURRENT APPEASEMENT

What the United States did last week was capitulate to a terrorist extortion. You can sugar-coat it with whatever words you like, but the truth remains the same. The Taliban will now be emboldened to take more hostages. And not just the Taliban. Every terrorist group in the world saw what happened. And every terrorist group now knows what they can get from this administration for a single American soldier, even of the lowest rank.

I do not say these things lightly. I have a dear cousin who has spent time in the Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I myself have spent much time in Pakistan and Indonesia investigating al Qaeda. I understand the ramifications of what I am advocating.

Who then, are the most outspoken critics of this action? The men and women of our armed forces, and they are angry because the administration traded for one of their own! Incongruous? Hardly. Every soldier knows (or at least was told) that America will not negotiate with terrorists and that their repatriation after capture was not guaranteed. But they also understood that this policy reduced the possibility of them being used as hostages. These soldiers know that the decision taken by President Obama has put every overseas American soldier at higher risk. And they resent the release of terrorists that soldiers risked their lives to capture.

Every single American overseas fighting terrorism, every State department employee, every low level clerk at an Embassy is now at a significantly greater risk. I spent years in the FBI traveling overseas investigating terrorism in Indonesia, Pakistan and other garden spots. We knew—because we were told bluntly—that if we were captured by terrorists, no deal would be made to free us. That was okay with us, because we knew the potential hostage takers knew that, too.

Now, Americans going overseas have to deal with the fact that the terrorists know that they can trade an American--any American--for something valuable. And there are still 149 of their friends in Guantanamo Bay. Under the Obama equation, that’s just under 30 Americans.

To be fair, the administration is calling this a POW swap, which at the end of a conflict is certainly appropriate and right. But this wasn’t a POW swap. The group that held Bergdahl is a terrorist group. The prisoners at Guantanamo were not members of any organized army representing any specific nation, and have never been accepted as such. And POW’s are not held at threat of death if demands aren’t met. The administration itself has explained that Bergdahl’s life was in immediate danger. That mitigates against him being POW.

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The administration is careful to refer to Bergdahl as a ‘prisoner,’ not a ‘hostage,’ much like they referred to the attacks at Benghazi as ‘demonstrations,’ and not ‘terrorism.’ The problem now is not simply with the administration’s foreign policy decisions, it’s the fact that Americans are having increasing trouble believing what they say about the decisions.

Call it what you want, but if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck—it’s a duck.

Maybe the President was trying to fulfill a campaign promise and empty Gitmo. I get that. He was elected. He gets to do what he had promised to do. But please do it without it seeming like a prisoner swap. At least the terrorists you let back out won’t be as inclined to take hostages.

Most troubling to me, however, is  the fact that the administration failed to comply with the law that requires the President to give congress 30 days advance notice before negotiating an exchange of Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

Not simply “within 30 days,” but specifically “30 days in advance.” I am deeply concerned because of the appearance that the administration might have intentionally ignored this law. 

The administration says that they had to act quickly because Bergdahl's life was in danger. The point becomes then, how did you know his life was in danger unless you were already negotiating? That would indicate that they were negotiating prior to their reason for not notifying congress. If the peril to Bergdahl was found through other means, how was contact with the terrorists so immediately established?

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Problematically, the administration can't get their story straight as to why they didn't advise congress as required by law. First, they said that they didn't have time because Bergdahl's life was in danger. Next, however, they claimed they just forgot.

Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told Senator Diane Feinstein that the failure to notify congress in advance “…was an oversight.” This, to say the least, stretches credibility. Even if it was true, it evinces a frightening level of incompetence and/or negligence. They forgot? It is difficult to believe that compliance with that particular law was “forgotten,” specifically because of the Obama administration's strong objection to the law when it was passed. At the time it was passed, they criticized the notification required by the law because, “It might tie the president’s hands in a prisoner exchange where time was of the essence.” Yes, it would. And that was the purpose of the law.

No administration can simply disregard laws they disagree with. Period.

THE HOSTAGE AND THE RANSOM

Many claim that Bergdahl is a deserter and some claim that he is a traitor. I do not have enough reliable information yet on which to base a decision. However, even with what has been reported, there is possible mitigation to his actions, even if he left the camp willingly.

Some people do not cope with battle well at all. Some collapse mentally. This is not unusual. It is possible that Bergdahl could not deal with war and his actions are a result of that. If that is true, then he is a casualty in a way. There is, however, not enough information available at this time to determine whether or not that is true.

It is also said that he is having trouble remembering English. I do not know if this is true, but if it is, I am puzzled. I know one American held in a foreign prison for four years, and while they occasionally forgot to speak English upon their release, their English had not degraded at all, though they were fluent in the language of their captor. Another person with whom I worked was an American imprisoned in Bolivia for two years. Not only was his English not impacted, he learned comparatively little Spanish. The fact that Bergdahl allegedly has forgotten English and speaks only Pashtu is troubling regardless of the reason.

According to USA Today, Bergdahl left a note behind when he left the camp saying that he wanted to “start over.” He left behind his rifle and body armor, but took a compass, knife, water, camera and a diary. He wasn’t going out looking for women or booze.

Former Army Sgt. Evan Buetow, search team leader the night of Bergdahl’s disappearance, told USA Today that the team intercepted radio and cellphone communications from a nearby village which described an American soldier who wanted to talk to the Taliban. Again, this will have to be investigated. Nothing is certain.

Significantly, soldiers from Bergdahl’s camp believed he was giving the Taliban information on military routes and times, because bombings and attacks on troops became more frequent and more accurate after his disappearance.

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The Washington Post identified the terrorists released from Guantanamo Bay as:

“Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, 47. Once, the Taliban’s Interior minister, hard liner. Close ties to Osama bin Laden”

“Mullah Mohammad Fazl, 47. Senior commander Taliban Army, later Chief of Staff. Personally supervised the killing of thousands of Shiite Muslims near Kabul 1998-2001. Present at a 2001 prison riot which killed CIA operative Johnny Spann. His military file states, ‘If released, would rejoin and participate in hostilities’”

“Mullah Norullah Noori, 47. Also present during Spann’s death. May have been involved in Shiite massacre. Military file: ‘Continues to be a significant figure encouraging acts of aggression.’”

“Abdul Haq Wasiq, 43. Deputy Chief of Intelligence for the Taliban. Used his office to support al Qaeda. Central to the Taliban’s effort to form alliances with other Islamic Fundamentalist groups.”

“Mohammad Nabi Omari, 46. Member of joint al Qaeda Taliban cell in eastern Khost province. ‘One of the most significant Taliban leaders detained at Gitmo’”

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Back to Winston Churchill;

"An appeaser is one who feeds the alligator, hoping it will eat him last."

America has fed the alligator, and he is still hungry.


 
 

SINGLE-MALT FRIENDS

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          Glenglassaugh (glen GLASS’ uch) is a single-malt Scotch that I suspect few if any of us have ever tasted. I say this not because I believe we are Philistines (I certainly don’t), but because Glenglassaugh is so expensive and rare. This fine Scotch comes from the Speyside region of the Scottish Highlands where the barley and the water are so unique and superb that they are de rigueur for the finest Scotch distilleries.

          For those less versed in Scotch, “single-malt” is the variation of Scotch that derives from a single aged oak barrel, rather than a mixture of the contents of several barrels, which is how other Scotches are blended. Blending multiple barrels is a technique used to bring up the overall quality of a year’s production by mixing good barrels with poorer barrels. Single-malt barrels, in contrast, are chosen specifically for their superior quality and are kept ‘virgin’ in order not to dilute their excellence. They are identified early in the aging process and regularly moved into different aging locations to change temperature and humidity to perfect the cask as the years go on. After a minimum of three years, the Scotch may legally be called Scotch (as long as it’s made in Scotland, of course) and it may be bottled. However, three years is hardly enough for single-malt. Many of Glenglassaugh’s single-malts are aged for decades and cost over $150 per bottle. You can even buy a full barrel (un-aged at purchase) for a mere $7,500 and within ten to twenty years, you’ll have a great cask of Glenglassaugh.

          Oddly enough, I was musing over this recently as I was leaving my high school class reunion. This was the first time I had ever really gone to a full-fledged high school reunion. You see, I’m a pessimist. Not by nature, but by decision. I very much dislike disappointments and letdowns, yet I always seemed to be the guy who “believed” in long-shots and doomed-causes long after everyone else had seen the light. I was the kind of guy who strolled into a Chevrolet dealership in 1974 determined to buy a Vega because I was sure that the one I got wouldn't be a piece of crap. Years after Sony had given up on the Betamax, I still refused to convert to VHS, counting on a "Beta" comeback. Following my call for a recount the morning after Ronald Reagan beat my candidate Jimmy Carter, my family conducted an intervention (and an exorcism). I finally sought help. Under doctor’s orders I underwent radical therapy; I adopted the Chicago Cubs as my favorite baseball team and for the last 30 years have had every last bit of optimism ruthlessly beaten out of my soul, (and I'm now a Republican). It is because of my hard-won pessimism that I knew that I would never go to a high-school reunion.

          I have heard every reunion horror story, and I knew what to expect.  Poseurs, losers and braggers. And I knew that I would, inevitably, become one of the three before the night was over. It’s almost inescapable when at a reunion; the ego stakes are simply too high. Because in a way, the reunion is a report card on your life. No matter what you have accomplished in intangibles like raising good children, giving to charity, helping old ladies across the street, your entire life will be graded within five minutes by everyone you speak to. And even if nothing is said, you will see it in their eyes. I would, I was certain, be judged by my weight, hair (or lack of same), grace in aging, financial wellbeing and career.  So I feared that I would be graded a loser or would try to be something I wasn’t. It’s a survival instinct.

          Sadly, as my 35th high-school reunion neared, I fell off the wagon of pessimism and I had a severe relapse of optimism. This was caused by a series of freak events: My favorite football team, the San Francisco 49’ers went on an unexpected winning streak. Then, against all odds, I got a contract for my first book, and I suddenly realized that I had gone almost 20,000 miles in my Chrysler minivan without a transmission failure. Obviously, none of these things can be explained in purely human terms, so you can understand my confusion. In a fit of optimism about which I still feel shame, I caught a plane to Chicago for the reunion of the Buffalo Grove High School Class of 1976.

          What I found at the reunion rocked me to my socks and set back my optimism aversion therapy probably for a lifetime. Inexplicably, it seemed, I had a fabulous time. I loved those people. In preparation for the event, I had memorized the “You can’t go home” adage (took me days), and had planned that each time I experienced an awkward silence because I had nothing in common with one of my old friends, I would simply repeat it silently to myself and the world would make sense. But as my old friends and I met up again after 35 years, something weird happened: We got along fabulously. There were no awkward silences. In fact, at times, I had the distinct feeling that we were continuing a conversation that got cut off last weekend, not in 1976.

          Even people I barely knew in high school became new friends at the reunion. In 1976, Mary the winsome redhead and Cindy the cheerleader were both “out of my league” and I knew it. Now, Mary and her husband live on a spread in South Dakota big enough that people can hunt on it and she’s working on a book. Cindy manages a radio station and basks in the success of a son who recently passed the bar. Both were larger than life at the reunion and two of the highlights of my night.  Friend after friend blew away my preconceived notions; Laura, Mark(s), Catherine(s) , Lance, Alysia, Tims(s), “Chaddy,” Steves(s), Anne, Nancy, Keith, Michelle, Tom……I was amazed at the quality of the people I had the privilege to go to high school with. I had no idea back then. Today, my old party-pals and fellow classroom clowns are musicians, cops, school teachers, stock brokers, authors, airline pilots, senate staffers, screenwriters, coaches, fire fighters, engineers, geologists, even a rabbi and a minister. It was quite a cast of characters. In more somber moments, we recounted the members of our class who would not be attending any more reunions because they had left us. By this reunion, the number that we knew of had reached double-digits, and it was a sobering and sad thought.

          Rather than fizzle like some reunions, ours continued even after the banquet hall closed. Then after the bars closed. Then, after they threw about thirty of us out of the lobby of the hotel. And then it continued in the empty restaurant the hotel graciously opened for us. At 3:30 a.m., twenty or so were still sitting around a huge makeshift table as our classmate Tim strummed his guitar and alternately serenaded us and played songs from our years in high school so that we could all sing along. How did I never know he was that talented back in 1976? For just a moment, I felt like we had gone home. But for only a moment, and it seemed like nobody really wanted it to end.

          But by 4:15, the realization was hitting most of us that we could only hold on to the moment so long, and like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, we had to grow up and get on with life. We reluctantly hugged, kissed, shook hands and promised to keep in touch and went off in different directions to our rooms. The next day, we continued in different directions at 500 miles per hour. I felt true sadness that the moment ended, not sadness at what time had done to all of us. Because frankly, time had been a friend. No, we hadn’t recaptured our youth, we hadn’t “gone home,” nor were we reliving our high school 'glory days.' Maybe we realized that we would never want to recapture our youth.

          On the way back to my hotel, my thoughts went to the conversations we had traded that night and I realized that no one hid behind the mask of “the perfect life.” Everyone at one time or another spoke of hidden pain, hardships and loss. Not one person wallowed in them, but neither were they afraid to admit them, to share their challenges and the ways they got through them, not because they wanted sympathy, but so they could encourage others. It was if they instinctively knew that everybody our age had been through hell at least once, and if you were on top one moment, you might be in a valley the next. It wasn’t a major topic, but it was there, and it was refreshing, and it was encouraging to see how people had overcome.

IT'S THE FIRE THAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE

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          And as I drove, my mind went to Glenglassaugh. Not because I needed another drink.  I was reminded of two little-known requirements for the making of fine Scotch. Fire and Bourbon. The best Scotch brands are aged in American Bourbon barrels that have had the interiors charred by firing. It is that charred barrel, steeped and aged in Bourbon that makes Scotch spectacular. When the Scotch alcohol first comes out of the pot still it is called, appropriately, “new spirit.” It is perfectly clear, colorless, and has a strong, undisciplined character much closer to “moonshine” than fine liquor. In high school, everyone at that reunion had been “new spirits." We had a sharp, in-your-face character, un-mellowed by any hard lessons or aging, because we hadn’t had any.

          But if aging alone would have mellowed us, everyone would be fine with age. But we know that is not the case. And it is not the case with Scotch. If aging alone could do it, there would not be rules about the cask, and the way the liquor is aged. The finest liquor experiences the harshest aging. The hotter the summers and the colder the winters the better the liquor. Temperate conditions create tepid flavor. Stagnation will create a poor Scotch, also. Sitting without any kind of activity takes the character out of the barrel, so the barrel has to be rotated frequently. Sitting and stagnating also create poor human beings. Finally, in Scotch, approximately 10% of the barrel evaporates during aging, and this is known as “The Angel’s Share.” It’s a simple equation; you can’t get a truly exceptional Scotch without experiencing loss. Every single person at that reunion had experienced loss, some more recently than others; every single person had given up “The Angel’s Share” in their life. And it seemed that the ones who had experienced the most loss were themselves the most “refined.” But ultimately, it is fire that makes a tepid, store-brand Scotch into a work of art and makes the “new spirits” into amazing creations.

          As the sun came up, it hit me that I had spent the evening with a group of single-malt friends. Not one of us had lived our lives without experiencing pain, loss or grief. Cancer, divorce, the death of friends and family, loss of jobs, financial ruin….nobody I spoke to had gotten through the last 35 years unscathed. We had all experienced the fire. And I realized that it was that fire; the pain, the loss and the recovery that had made these people extraordinary. It turned out that pain and what we learned from it might have been the common bond that we now had.

          In June, 1976 in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, several hundred high school seniors graduated and moved out into the world with high hopes for the “good life” and few problems. That same month, in Speyside, Scotland, Glenglassaugh Distillery put up several barrels of “new spirit” into used, distressed, charred oak Bourbon barrels from Tennessee.  This month, 35 years later, a remnant of that high school class met a few miles from the school which helped form them. They had experienced the fire of life, yes, but were stronger and better in most cases. They had mellowed, were more interesting, and their essential “bouquet” was more unique and pleasing than ever.  Also this month, in the Scotland Highlands, the casks put up in 1976 were finally unsealed and poured into cut-crystal decanters, aged and distressed perfectly. The rare 35 year old Scotch went on the market for more than $500 per bottle. If these bottles are as mellow and full of character as the Buffalo Grove class of the same year, Glenglassaugh will be proud. In Scotland, as in Buffalo Grove, the exquisite result of aging and fire is recognized as having unusual value.

          In the very near future, I plan to have a single shot of the finest single-malt Scotch my wallet will allow. And I will sip it straight, slowly enjoying its myriad of flavors, and contemplate the things that created those flavors. And I will think of my classmates who have aged so wonderfully, and contemplate the lives and the fires that created their wonderful character. Finally, I will drink to our classes’ ‘Angel’s Share;’ the ones we’ve lost in the process. With any luck, I will be remembering my classmates with that 1976 Glenglassaugh masterpiece, which they have appropriately named;

          "The Chosen Few."