Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Will Democrats pay a price for Bergdahl deal?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
As long as there has been war, there have been prisoners. And as long as there have been people held by the so-called enemy, there have been some who went free -- whether they escaped, were exchanged or were released. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is now part of the club. Nearly five years after his capture in Afghanistan, Bergdahl was recently released in exchange for five detainees from the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. What will Bergdahl do next? Time will tell. As long as there has been war, there have been prisoners. And as long as there have been people held by the so-called enemy, there have been some who went free -- whether they escaped, were exchanged or were released. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is now part of the club. Nearly five years after his capture in Afghanistan, Bergdahl was recently released in exchange for five detainees from the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. What will Bergdahl do next? Time will tell.
HIDE CAPTION
Famous captives: Life after freedom
Andrew Jackson
Meriwether Lewis Clark Sr.
Winston Churchill
Merian Cooper
Charles de Gaulle
Jean-Paul Sartre
Kurt Vonnegut
Francis Gary Powers
John McCain
Jessica Lynch
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Criticism of Obama foreign policy has been on the increase
  • Hillary Clinton's book mentions her disagreement with Obama on Syrian rebels
  • He says debate over prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl adds to the controversy
  • Zelizer says foreign policy can have effect on midterms, usually dominated by economic issues

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Critics of President Barack Obama's foreign policy are getting louder by the day, and that poses risks for Democrats this fall and even in 2016.

According to previews of Hillary Clinton's memoirs, "Hard Choices," the former secretary of state distances herself from Obama on certain decisions, such as on the question of whether to arm Syrian rebels. She wanted to be more aggressive; he did not.

Democrats have grown more nervous about foreign policy as Obama has been working hard to respond to critics who say hasn't taken a tough-enough line. The controversy over the deal to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban prisoners has flared into an extraordinarily heated debate. Obama has watched as his approval rating for handling international affairs has fallen to 41%.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Last month, Obama had to stand by as Republicans launched another round of congressional investigations into the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Russia's aggressive moves into the Ukraine stirred talk of a new Cold War and concern that the President didn't really have a viable response to this kind of aggression.

Opinion: Why we leave no man behind

More recently, the controversies shifted to the President's broader vision or lack thereof. Republicans found a lot to dislike in his address at West Point, where Obama indicated that the nation should step back from using military power as freely as it has done in the past.

Soon after came the news about the release of Bergdahl, in exchange for the release of five notorious Taliban prisoners. Republicans were quick to accuse the President of negotiating with terrorists. They have also accused him of violating the law by failing to inform Congress of the impending deal.

Hillary, Obama and "Mean Girls"
Has Bergdahl impacted the Obama 'brand'?
Obama reaffirms US support for Ukraine

Even though Democrats point to a number of huge accomplishments during the Obama presidency -- the killing of Osama bin Laden, the drawdown of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and diplomatic initiatives to bring nuclear disarmament in Iran without bloodshed -- the critics have upped their volume.

All of the recent stories add up to the potential for foreign policy to emerge as a potent issue in the midterm campaigns this fall. Congressional Democrats could suffer as a result of the unhappiness with the administration's policies. Even though midterm elections generally focus on bread and butter questions about the health of the economy, as well as local concerns, there are times when foreign policy can hurt the party of the president.

In 1966, for instance, Republicans campaigned against Lyndon Johnson's policies in Vietnam. GOP officials such as former Vice President Richard Nixon said that Johnson was not unleashing enough force against the North Vietnamese Communists and leaving U.S. troops in a quagmire. In 1978, Republicans railed against President Jimmy Carter for his alleged weakness in foreign policy, claiming that he gave away too much in the Panama Canal Treaties and that he was pursuing a dangerous policy of d├ętente with the Soviet Union.

In 1982, Democrats, who were generally focused on the recession, also spoke in favor of a nuclear freeze and warned that President Ronald Reagan's embrace of the military was bringing the nation close to war. More recently, Republicans blasted Democrats in 2002 for being weak on defense after having not supported the administration's homeland security bill. And in 2006, Democratic candidates returned the favor by criticizing the president's war in Iraq as a reckless, unnecessary and extremely costly operation that had actually undermined the war on terrorism.

Gingrich: Bergdahl, Boko Haram and Benghazi

While foreign policy carried different levels of weight in these midterms, in some of these contests, such as 1966 and 2006, the administration's actions overseas dismayed voters.

Will foreign policy play a factor in the 2014 midterms? It is unlikely that it will be a major issue but there are ways it could have an indirect effect on the ballot box and cause trouble for Democrats when Americans turn out to vote.

At the most immediate level, the foreign policy controversy has already distracted the news media from other kinds of stories upon which congressional Democrats were hoping to focus. The foreign policy controversy intensified just as there was evidence that the economy was picking up steam and that the Obama's health care program was gaining strength. Both signs of accomplishment were put on the back burner, overshadowed by the Bergdahl debate.

The stories also feed the perception of some voters who feel that Democrats have not done a good job managing government. This is a White House that once prided itself on competence. Obama, a well-educated politician who surrounded himself with bright staff, vowed to avoid the kind of mismanagement that had been on display with Hurricane Katrina during President George W. Bush's term. But that reputation has slowly been undercut, especially after the botched health care website rollout and the VA scandal.

Opinion: Bergdahl deal was an ugly decision but right

Some of the coverage of the foreign policy, including recent reports on how the deal with the Taliban was handled, have played into these kinds of criticism. The New York Times published a lengthy piece about the diminishing returns that Obama was able to obtain over the past several years in exchange for the release of the Taliban 5 and evidence of how his team had mishandled the process.

The Berghdal deal is also becoming a way to question the veracity of Democratic promises.

Members of Congress, in both parties, have alleged that Obama violated the law by ignoring a federal statute that says the president must inform Congress one month before such a deal is completed. They have said he is acting exactly like Bush, whom he had accused of discounting legislative intent through sweeping notions of executive power.

The foreign policy debate puts into focus the argument that Obama, as well as the party he leads, lacks a bold vision. This is something that has even frustrated many Democrats who feel that the President is too much of pragmatist and not enough of a visionary. The speech at West Point fell flat for some Americans because it almost seemed focus on excusing what he couldn't do rather outlining what he wants to do.

During his visit to the Philippines, the President explained his outlook on foreign policy by saying, "You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while you may be able to hit a home run."

The debate over foreign policy helps Republicans by riling up the party's base at an opportune time, five months before the election, while at the same time dispiriting the Democrats. Yes, voters are thinking primarily about how they're faring in today's economy, but on the margins, their perception of their local candidate's views on foreign policy could be a factor in November.

Opinion: How big a risk are former Gitmo prisoners?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT