Friday, May 27 , 2016, 3:25 am | Fair 58º

Joe Conason: With Bergdahl, ‘‘Conservatives’ Ignore Basic American Principles

By Joe Conason |

What the Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl saga demonstrates beyond question — to anyone who still nurtured any doubt — is that the Republican right will junk just about any basic American value to satisfy its hatred of President Barack Obama. Fair play, due process, respect for families and the military: To most, if not all, so-called conservatives, none of these fundamentals matters nearly so much as the urge to undermine the nation's first black president. Which is another reason, among many, why they no longer deserve the honorific "conservative."

In the matter of Bergdahl, a military officer held by the enemy in Afghanistan and released in a trade of prisoners, the right-wing fakers who call themselves conservative are trashing ideals they routinely claim to hold sacred.

The American military code of conduct has long assured all service personnel that if captured by the enemy, "you may rest assured that your government ... will use every practical means to contact, support and gain release for you and for all other prisoners of war." Leaving aside the moral imperative that is the foundation of this policy, which predates the current military code by centuries, it is a simple military necessity.

Support the troops? The morale of our fighting men and women would be severely damaged if they were to come to believe that the U.S. government would not do everything in its power to bring them home from captivity — regardless of any questions about their conduct. (Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has written forthrightly of his shame about his own conduct as a Vietnam POW, surely should be able to explain why.)

Our national commitment to rescue American captives extends beyond those in uniform to any citizen who has been kidnapped or seized by a hostile force. That was certainly the excuse when the president most revered by the right — Ronald Reagan — handed over advanced weapons to a terrorist regime in the Iran-Contra deal. It is a commonplace observation that if a Democratic president had committed the same offenses, he and his cohort would have been denounced for treason, and perhaps rightly so. Yet while the Republicans want to impeach President Obama for releasing five Taliban geezers, they would still stamp Reagan's image on coins and bills, raise monuments to his memory, and emblazon his name on every edifice in the country.

Prominent voices on the right now insist that Bergdahl was unworthy of rescue, because his capture allegedly occurred after he deserted his post. None of the loudest wingnuts registered this complaint until after the White House secured his release; indeed, many of them were agitating for the Obama administration to save Bergdahl until this week. Today they declare with equal volume and fervor that he is a "traitor" who should have been left to rot with his Taliban captors.

So much for the American principles of due process and presumption of innocence — which happen to be among the very ideals that are supposed to differentiate us from our enemies. Libertarians and conservatives always fiercely claim to uphold due process, especially when one of their ilk is in the dock. But for some curious reason, those principles don't always apply when a Democrat is president. Thankfully, in the view of the commander-in-chief and the U.S. Army, which maintains jurisdiction and custody over Bergdahl, due process apparently remains in force, which must be why he was promoted to sergeant while a prisoner of war.

However angry Bergdahl's former comrades may feel, and however his actions may have justified their anger, they will likely have an opportunity to testify about him if the Army pursues a court martial. That would be the appropriate forum to sort out the facts about Bergdahl's conduct — not a Twitter lynching party or a kangaroo court held by William Kristol on Fox News Channel. The proposal that we should leave a soldier in the hands of the enemy, based on suspicions or rumors of disloyalty, is disgusting on many levels and should infuriate anyone who boasts of his devotion to the Constitution.

A decent respect for military families — owed to the sacrifices and hardships they confront — is another conservative virtue the right no longer deems convenient. Whatever anyone thinks of Bergdahl (or his father's Duck Dynasty-style beard), Robert and Jani Bergdahl have faced the same heartache as any captured soldier's parents — and they have done nothing to deserve the sudden torrent of partisan abuse. The swinish Glenn Beck — a self-styled super-patriot who spent his youth snorting cocaine and swilling booze while others served their country — is eagerly leading the effort to demonize the Bergdahls.

In years past, the venerable taboo against abusing the reputation of an Army veteran, especially a former prisoner of war, to pursue a political vendetta would have been too powerful to ignore. Today we see the Republican right eagerly mobilizing its entire media apparatus — complete with cheesy Washington public relations flacks and sleazy fundraising appeals — to mount a bitter campaign against Bergdahl and his family.

Of course, the true target is Obama. Everything and everyone else, from the beleaguered Bergdahls to respect for due process and the military code, even conservatism itself, are all just so much "collateral damage." The radical right will not desist until it has all burned down.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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