Next week marks the second anniversary of President Barack Obama's executive order closing the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay -- but Gitmo's closure has never seemed less likely.
It's easy to forget just how bipartisan an issue closing Gitmo once was. Sure, Obama supported closure, but so did Sen. John McCain and America's most recognizable military leader, Gen. David Petraeus. In 2006, President George W. Bush, reeling from his mishandling of two wars and public and international outcry over his national-security policies, said he thought the prison should be closed. He went as far as to say that some of the "cold-blooded killers" held there needed to be "tried in U.S. courts."
Now such a statement would put a Republican radically out of step with his party, which has moved to block Gitmo's closure as part of a wildly successful strategy of total opposition to the Obama administration. Of all the policy disputes between liberals and conservatives in the past two years, few have been subject to as much partisan demagoguery and misinformation as the closure of Gitmo. Former Vice President Dick Cheney emerged from retirement in the early months of 2009 warning that "to bring the worst terrorists inside the United States would be a cause for great danger and regret in the years to come."
Cheney set the tone for what Obama ultimately referred to as "pretty rank politics" on Gitmo. Sen. Jim DeMint said, "Transferring detainees from Guantánamo Bay to U.S soil will endanger American lives," and Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a border hawk, actually suggested Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, could get a "path to citizenship." These conservatives were attempting to convince Americans that trying and holding terrorists on American soil would be unsafe -- despite the fact that American prisons have already held hundreds of terrorists, and civilian courts have proved far superior to military commissions, which have convicted just enough terrorists to count on one hand.
Republicans reacted to terrorists as though they were comic-book super villains instead of fanatics and murderers, as if closing Gitmo would send terrorists rampaging through middle America. While Cheney's re-emergence was more about defending his part in instituting Bush-era policies of torture and indefinite detention, he nevertheless succeeded in stoking Republican identification with policies that once seemed discredited.
The administration handled the matter poorly, too, moving with alacrity on matters of symbolism but dragging its feet on matters of substance. An early opportunity to secure the funding for Gitmo's closure came with the supplemental defense spending bill in May 2009, but the administration failed to provide congressional Democrats with a plan, and they chose to deny the funding. After the Senate voted 90-9 against including the funds, Sen. Dick Durbin shrugged that Democrats were "being asked to defend a plan that hasn't been announced.'' Closing Gitmo would only become more controversial. In hindsight, that early vote was a tremendous rebuke to Obama, coming the same day as his National Archives speech foreshadowing his intention to largely change the tone, if not the substance, of Bush-era national-security policies.
In December of 2009, the administration announced plans to purchase a corrections facility in Illinois and transfer detainees there. Advocacy groups recoiled in frustration over what they derisively referred to as "Gitmo North." A month earlier, Attorney General Eric Holder had announced his intention to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the other alleged 9/11 conspirators in civilian court, without having properly laid the groundwork with local stakeholders. Once again, the administration's poorly planned attempts to do the right thing frustrated Obama's allies and delighted his enemies, who warned of apocalyptic consequences for New York City.
The backlash to Holder's announcement has left a 9/11 trial in stasis for more than a year. When a civilian trial for Ahmed Ghailani, one of the accomplices in the 1998 East African embassy bombings that killed more than 200 people, ended in November 2010 with a conviction on only a single count, the administration once again found itself caught flat-footed by a political firestorm of its own making. Instead of arguing that the trial was a victory for the rule of law, the administration reinforced the conservative claim that trials for suspected terrorists are a mere ritual formality, best conducted in the safety of an island prison far from the mainland.
Perhaps to preempt micromanagement from the empowered GOP majority in the House, the administration announced in late December its intent to craft an indefinite-detention policy that would contain more due-process safeguards than before -- formalizing its commitment to what Karen Greenberg has referred to as the "heart" of Bush-era national-security policy.
While the final chapter in the long, sad saga of Guantánamo Bay prison has yet to be written, the fight to close it may have already been lost with the end of the Democratic majority in Congress. A provision in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act bans the use of Defense Department funds to transfer detainees to the U.S. for trial. Unwilling to veto the bill or simply ignore the law as his predecessor did, Obama instead vowed to "fight" the ban and close Gitmo.
If the administration's definition of "fighting" resembles its performance over the past two years, then Gitmo will never be closed -- at least not on Obama's watch.
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)