Former State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley has written a column for The Guardian that argues the United States military should not give America’s enemies and rivals a “propaganda victory” by taking Pfc. Bradley Manning’s case to trial. He suggests the military may be “martyring” Manning and the military should accept his guilty plea and send him to prison for 20 years.

Crowley was with the State Department when it became aware hundreds of thousands of US State Embassy cables were going to be released by news organizations because they had been obtained by WikiLeaks, he was part of the damage control effort. He spoke off-the-cuff about Manning’s treatment at Marine Corps Base Quantico prison, which he called “counterproductive.” Ever since, he has had something to say about WikiLeaks or the soldier, who the military is prosecuting for disclosing information to the media organization. He was ultimately forced out of the position of State Department spokesperson for speaking about Manning’s mistreatment. However, he does not support WikiLeaks nor does he support the choices Manning made to disclose certain documents.

The argument Crowley makes in his column is similar to the remarks made by President Barack Obama in 2009 when signed and executive order that numerous Americans thought would lead to the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison. Then, he said, this would make it possible for America to reclaim the “moral high ground.” America would be able to “repair” its “image” in the world.

This is what motivates Crowley’s argument:

The external costs to American public diplomacy of keeping Manning on the global stage now outweigh any additional benefit from further legal action. The longer the case goes on, the greater the opportunity for international rivals to make propaganda hay at America’s expense. After a recent appearance on RT, Russia’s English language broadcast network, it became clear to me that Moscow, having been stung by the Sergei Magnitsky case, was happy to return fire through both Bradley Manning and Guantánamo.

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Given the inherently political nature of 21st-century conflicts, credible narratives will be more decisive than bullets and bombs. The critical terrain of “clear, hold and build” is the perceptions of key global audiences, sustaining their understanding, support, trust and legitimacy for strategic interests and actions. In this context, any unwarranted action that provides an adversary with a propaganda victory could be considered “aiding the enemy.”

It is a pragmatic foreign policy argument, one that acknowledges that Manning now poses a risk to America’s ability to use what is called “soft power” to influence others. Magnitsky’s case is as bad, if not worse, than Manning’s, as he is dead and being put on trial by Russia posthumously. However, between Russia and the US, no one has high ground right now because there is evidence on both sides that someone considered a whistleblower is being persecuted in their country.

Manning’s statement to the court on why he disclosed documents to WikiLeaks may have increased the risk to foreign policy interests that is posed by the US taking Manning to trial. The ability of people around the world to hear leaked audio of him likely escalated the potential risk as well.

Crowley writes in regards to Manning’s statement that it shows he should not spend the rest of his life in prison. He highlights the decision Manning made to release a US embassy cable from Reykjevik “about the Icesave case” and how he “concluded that the US, while not a party in the dispute, was not being helpful enough to Iceland.”

Manning, usurping the roles of the US secretary of the treasury and chairman of the Federal Reserve, said he wanted to “right a wrong”, and expose what he thought were “backdoor deals”. Yet by the time he forwarded the diplomatic cable to WikiLeaks in February 2010, the bank had been closed for more than a year; the matter was being openly debated in national capitals and extensively covered by global media. It was ultimately resolved in court.

Scroll through The Guardian coverage of “Icesave.” It does not appear it was “resolved in court” by the time that Manning released the cable. But, the point could be made without this last sentence. Manning was a low-level soldier, who should not have revealed this was ongoing. If the Federal Reserve chairman had wanted to “right a wrong” or share details with the world, he would have—and he did not.

“These weren’t the actions of a whistleblower, but rather a window shopper in a classified database who knew little about the Icesave case but thought it seemed ‘important,’” Crowley writes. This is rather condescending to the people of Iceland, who may have appreciated knowing what had been going on behind the scenes diplomatically at the expense of their future or livelihoods.

But, one can appreciate that Crowley does not believe for a moment the argument the military (and US government) is trying to advance that Manning “aided the enemy.” He mentions the “Collateral Murder” video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad and states, “Whatever one thinks of his judgment, there is no indication he did anything with the intention of helping any adversary.”

Furthermore, he adds:

If Bradley Manning is guilty, he has a lot of company. Those responsible for mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib had a far more significant impact on perceptions of the Iraq war than Manning did. The Qu’ran-burning incident provided the Taliban with a vehicle to deride the US combat presence in Afghanistan and suspend informal reconciliation talks that are ultimately vital to the successful conclusion of the conflict there. Personnel involved in these incidents were disciplined but not charged with ”aiding the enemy”.

Crowley has spoken out on Manning’s case pragmatically before. He’s been one of the few to do it while also trying to ensure his statements remain within the boundaries of what those in the Washington establishment can say without becoming a pariah or too much of an outcast among colleagues.

One wonders if there will be others who come forward to make this kind of argument in the coming months before Manning’s trial begins on June 3. Twenty years for Manning has become what is considered “reasonable” punishment. Law professor Geoffrey Stone thinks it would be “military overreach” to pursue additional penalty and 20 years is “more than sufficient.” The Los Angeles Times editorial board has said 20 years would be “punishment enough,” when considering he could be confined “until middle age.” Even Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, when he came up during a broadcast in March, seemed to suggest that he would accept twenty years.

It is becoming more and more unconscionable by the day for the US military to take Manning’s case to trial. When officials begin to see making an example out of Manning poses a risk to the United States’ standing in the world, that is a clear and obvious signal that the military—as the Justice Department has done in cases against activists and whistleblowers—is over-prosecuting Manning.