The infamous Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, built by the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks to house captured terrorists, is fast becoming a ghost camp. Over the years, some 800 detainees have been held at Guantanamo; the number is now down to 91 detainees and set to shrink still further, with an additional 35 prisoners already approved for transfer to other countries.
President Barack Obama is making an eleventh-hour push to close Guantanamo and transfer the remaining detainees to the United States. In a White House press conference this week, the president argued that closing Guantanamo would end a dark chapter in the U.S.’s war on terror, would help repair America’s stained reputation with friends and allies, and would take away a propaganda instrument wielded by terrorist groups in their recruitment. Obama even suggested that closing Guantanamo would save money, a dig at Congress, which holds the purse strings in the U.S. system and has stymied all his previous efforts to shutter the prison.
The president’s plan is similar to ones he has proposed previously. Close Guantanamo, bring the remaining detainees to the United States, house them in a secure facility, and submit as many as possible to trial in civil courts and in some cases through the Military Commissions process, presided over by military judges.
Unfortunately for Obama, the politics of Guantanamo closure have not changed, even as the number of detainees has declined and the threat they pose has been radically diminished. Obama knows this and tried to face it head-on by calling for a fact-based, non-partisan dialogue with Congress over his plan.
That the president can still have faith in such a process is a wonder, given all that he has been through with Congress. But Obama also knows that there is a heightened politics of fear abroad in America, stimulated by the heated rhetoric of the election primaries, stoked by the example of terror attacks globally and closer to home in San Bernardino, California, and even abetted by a recent statement from senior U.S. intelligence officials expressing concerns about the likelihood of a rise of terror attacks on U.S. soil in the coming years, incited by groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliates.
This politics of fear is hard to combat, but the president was at pains to argue that it would actually be beneficial to national security to close Guantanamo and bring its dwindling population to the U.S.
It is a message likely to be drowned out by the noise of presidential contenders, particularly on the Republican right.
Why is Obama making this last-ditch and long-odds effort to close Guantanamo? For him it is both personal and political. Personal in the sense that failing to close Guantanamo means failure to fully accomplish a promised shift in the U.S. conduct of its counter-terrorism campaign, away from the abuses of the early post-9/11 days. Obama has achieved much, including ending extraordinary rendition of terror suspects to third countries, closing the CIA “black site” prisons abroad, and ending torture. But Guantanamo remains open and he doesn’t want it as a legacy.
The matter is political as well. It means leaving a poisoned chalice to his successor, whether Democrat or Republican, with Obama’s name on it. The next White House incumbent will have to waste time on the issue, have to deal with complaints from allies and friends, have Guantanamo used as a counter-argument whenever the U.S. tries to push human rights reforms on recalcitrant partners, and have to face the frustration of giving a card to terrorist groups intent on proving that the U.S. is engaged in a systematic campaign of oppression against Muslims worldwide.
It’s political in the sense that Obama knows that without an effort to close Guantanamo, he can’t bring better sense to the American congressional and public debate on the terrorism threat in his final months in office. Like the stymied efforts on gun control, Obama has failed to move American political culture on the Guantanamo issue and this is something he clearly regrets.
This piece originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen: http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/wark-obamas-ghost-camp-haunts-him-still