Politics & Policy

Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Is President Obama imprisoned by his promise to close Gitmo?

There is renewed interest in Guantanamo Bay. Released Gitmo detainees hold prominent positions in the terror network responsible for the foiled Christmas Day airline attack, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Can President Obama reverse his rash promise to close what everyone agrees is a top-of-the-line, Geneva Conventions–compliant detention center? Or must the president and his advisers press ahead?

PETER BROOKES

Considering the Christmas Day attack and the recidivism rate of former detainees, it makes no sense to close Gitmo. Who in his right mind could blame us for keeping the facility open? It’s clear we’re still in the crosshairs of al-Qaeda, Inc., which continues to ruthlessly plot against innocents. If this isn’t “war” anymore, then exactly what is it?

But with one of the most political administrations in recent memory, there is no way this president is backing down from one of his first executive decisions upon entering the Oval Office — not to mention a campaign promise. He’s already just about missed his intended deadline for shuttering Gitmo, so to be sure to fend off expected criticism, especially from his political base, Obama will find a way to do it.

And, by George, there are elections this year, in which he, as the standard-bearer for his party, will be judged on his Gitmo decision. Liberals running for office are already in a heap of trouble — even without Gitmo.

The sad thing is that this shouldn’t be a political decision, but a national-security one, based on the good of the country. Unfortunately, that sort of common sense isn’t so common in Washington anymore.

– Peter Brookes is Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs and Chung Ju-Yung Fellow for Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

LEE A. CASEY & DAVID B. RIVKIN JR.

In truth, it will be far more difficult for the president to accept that his decision to close Guantanamo was wrong than it will be for him to explain a reversal of the policy. Here, the spin is easy — it has the unusual virtue of being true.

Obama has consistently maintained that he would not endanger American security in implementing his policies vis-à-vis al-Qaeda and its allies — he could hardly have done otherwise. That being the case, he need only acknowledge that one of the fundamental aspects of his Guantanamo closure policy — the ability to transfer most of the detainees either to their own countries or to third countries for “rehabilitation” — has not worked out as he had hoped and expected. The only way of closing Guantanamo and ensuring U.S. security interests would be to bring the entire detainee population into the United States, which he never planned to do. Therefore, Guantanamo will have to remain open pending further review of detainee repatriation opportunities and policies.

The problem, of course, is that Mr. Obama’s base spent nearly eight years claiming that Guantanamo was inherently evil and that it was a stain on the nation’s reputation attributable to George W. Bush’s insatiable desire to concentrate power in his own hands regardless of individual rights.

The Bush policy was, of course, neither evil nor unlawful, and any “stain” has always been more imaginary than real. But too many of Bush’s critics came to believe their own propaganda, and changing these beliefs will be hard. Nevertheless, the presidency is a hard job — so Mr. Obama had best get to it.

David B. Rivkin Jr. & Lee A. Casey are partners in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker & Hostetler LLP. They served in the Justice Department during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. David Rivkin is co-chair of the Center for Law and Counterterrorism.

ANDREW C. McCARTHY

President Obama does have a window of opportunity here. At least one of the lawyers for a number of the detainees has come out publicly and said that, as far as his clients are concerned, Gitmo would be preferable to a maximum-security federal prison in the cold of Illinois. Earlier, we had a number of the Uighurs say they’d prefer to stay in Gitmo than go to Palau. So now we have (a) at least some of the detainees saying Gitmo is better than a number of places they might otherwise be sent, (b) no meaningful cooperation in closing Gitmo from some of the European countries that were the facility’s sharpest critics, (c) a solid record of Gitmo jihadists’ returning to the jihad, underscoring the benefits of having the facility, and (d) no real prospect of closing the place anytime soon — even if the Gitmo North scheme works (and it shouldn’t), it will be months if not years before it can be “hardened” to be up to the task of securing jihadists.

Of course the Left would scream — and that’s a problem for the president, because he doesn’t want a mutiny when he’s trying to socialize medicine with a razor-thin margin and plunging favorability ratings. But still, Obama could easily say that the preconditions he had in mind for closing Gitmo have not been met, the security/cooperation situation is worse than he anticipated, and (he can claim) he has worked hard to confirm that Gitmo is a Geneva Conventions–compliant, first-rate facility — such that a number of the prisoners prefer it to other alternatives. (It has long been an excellent facility, but politically, Obama will want to focus on the now.) The brief rebellion he’d get from his base would be better than what he will otherwise get: a steady drumbeat of criticism as the months go by, the facility stays open, and there are constant reminders that he has broken one of the first, most amateurish promises he made in the opening hours of his presidency.

National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and the author of Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad (Encounter Books, 2008).

CLIFFORD D. MAY

A graceful pivot on Gitmo will not be easy, and it will anger Obama’s far-left base, including those who bloviate in the blogosphere. But it’s the right thing to do for reasons of national security — which is the first of the five points I think the president would need to emphasize in a well-crafted speech on why his thinking on this issue has shifted:

1) Keeping Americans safe is my duty — and it is my top priority.

2) The real problem at Guantanamo is not the place — it’s the practices that have been employed there. But there have been significant improvements, and I have a plan to ensure that this facility achieves the highest and most ethical standards possible. (Staff or a “blue-ribbon panel” would come up with such a plan.)

3) These are tough economic times. We’ve spent a lot of money at Guantanamo. I’m not about to waste taxpayer dollars if I can avoid it.

4) I often tell young audiences: Nothing is more important than learning. I learn every day. I have learned from what almost happened in the skies over Detroit. We have 198 detainees remaining at Guantanamo — 91 from Yemen. They can’t go back there now, nor to any country where al-Qaeda is active. Other countries may not want them. Many Americans are not eager to have them here. So for now, these detainees will remain at Guantanamo, and for now Guantanamo will remain open. This is not a good choice; it is the least bad choice.

5) I know some people will not be happy with my decision — or with me. But my responsibility is to do what is right for our country, to protect and defend American citizens to the best of my ability. That is what I am doing today. That is what I intend to do every day I have the privilege to serve as president of the United States.

– Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and militant Islamism.

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