Opinion: Well, Forget About Closing Guantanamo - Slow Week

Photo by Marion Doss.

Now that the nation is fully aware of how the NSA has kept extensive tabs on whom they call and when they call them, even President Obama’s steadfast supporters are remarking on how his administration has lost “all credibility” in keeping its national security efforts transparent. No more than three weeks after his lauded and scrutinized foreign policy speech on May 23, outlining strong intentions to close the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba among other War on Terror enterprises, and the Commander-in-chief’s political capital is now all but vanished.

President Obama’s foreign policy speech on May 23.

It is a pity, especially since he would have probably needed every last proverbial dime to push forth the would-be staple of Obama second term foreign policy.

Rewinding back to March 2010, a beleaguered first term president was days before pushing some version of his vision for healthcare through the nearly impossible legislative straits when he realized he was late. Two months late that is, in meeting the one-year deadline he set for himself upon entering office to close the Cuban prison. Having spent over a year bringing his precious Affordable Care Act to life in a brutal and ugly fight that sparked the birth of the staunchly anti-government Tea Party, he began proposing something even more audacious.

That ‘original’ effort to actually strain political muscle to close Gitmo was dragged down by, above all, a particularly terrible-sounding plan for moving the detainees to a facility in the US in order to be ‘de-programmed.’ A little over month later and the headlines would be occupied by the BP oil spill, then a renewed effort for immigration reform in the summer, all before the great ‘shellacking’ of the upcoming midterm elections.

Fast forward to today, and the NSA phone spying scandal has placed (an appropriately) large enough cloud over national media coverage that unfortunately blacks out mass perception of just about anything else, including Congress’s effort to make the Cuban prison permanent. Where the BP oil spill demonstrated federal ineptitude, the NSA scandal shows government doing what its detractors always insist government does best: cling to an obsessive need for control against its deceptively softer rhetoric.

As with all second term scandals, seedy dealings against citizens’ better interests happening beneath Washington’s already smoldering surface can be relayed faster and with fewer obstacles.

Last Thursday, the House Armed Services Committee sent the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to the floor, where it will be debated this week. If that name rings a bell, it should. The NDAA for fiscal year 2012 made some headlines a year and a half ago for containing language that could legally justify the military detaining anyone, including Americans, for as long as they want without even so much as a trial, as long as the government considers them allies of al-Quaeda terrorists.

Such provisions were so callously worded, President Obama himself remarked that he signed the act with “serious reservations” about the “minimally acceptable” changes to a law he originally promised to veto. In order to keep the military funded for another year, he put his name on the law while vowing to stand up for detainee’s civil rights.

In this year’s version of the bill, the house committee allocated $500 million to keep the Guantanamo Bay detention center up and running – a wager that the president’s forward momentum on this or really any of his other major agenda items before 2016 has already been thoroughly thwarted. In fact, they rejected a bid to reserve the authority to move detainees with in the president’s domain.

Though optimistic lawmakers like Sen. John McCain see the minority view gaining steam, the latest polling suggests that most Americans support keeping the prison open. Yet perhaps even more difficult to swallow than the idea of bringing suspected terrorists stateside is is moving them anywhere else in the world, along with the Orwellian form that their rehabilitation could take.

Officials in Yemen cheered when the president promised in his speech to lift the ban on repatriating Yemeni detainees being held in the prison. That policy was instituted after a Nigerian man attempted to demolish a US bound flight on Christmas Day 2009 on instructions from al-Quaeda associates based in the country. Hawks in Congress, however, were none too enthused.

“Between December 2009 and today, has Yemen shown any indication that they are more capable of looking after those individuals? Absolutely not,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss told the press. “And if we were to transfer those individuals to Yemen, it would be just like turning them loose.”

Not quite, and the reason why has to do with Yemen wanting more than just their citizens back. No more than a week after the foreign policy address, Yemen began demanding $20 million from the US to build a (wait for it…) ‘de-programming’ center after being dissatisfied with the progress being made to make the president’s promise a reality.

Fifty-six Yemeni nationals count among the 86 Gitmo prisoners currently cleared for transfer or release, with many more among those waiting for clearance. Like the very existence of Guantanamo Bay itself, these are problems with available answers that seem about as distasteful or more so than the initial predicament.

As for what exactly is involved in de-programming? Well to Sen. Chambliss’s credit, it’s hard to imagine anyone exposed to the reported conditions at Gitmo — conditions that would induce a hunger strike — after release being very friendly toward their torturous and ruthless captors.

Perhaps that’s why we’re going to keep the drone program alive? Just for that moment after years of release back into civil society that any of these detainees suddenly decide that the struggle is finished. They’ve won the victory over themselves, and that they suddenly love the United States.

In all seriousness, the detention center is an obvious embarrassment to civil rights and a stain on whatever moral authority the United States could hope to command in 2013. Closing Guantanamo Bay is a conversation we should as a country be having and in the open if only because not one plausible solution to the many obstacles along the way is at all comforting.

Everyone understands that difficult decisions need to be made at almost every turn. What makes matters worse is, like so many outcomes of the War on Terror, we keep raising the stakes of potential abuse and oppression by delaying inevitable, larger, more controversial choices any further.

If we don’t want to find a place in the world for these potential terror suspects, then we have to force feed them through stomach tubes. If we let the prison fester and boil for over a decade, potential allies in the Middle East will demand the release of nationals that will involve the cost of rehabilitation, one way or another.

Given the snowball’s chance in hell that House debate over the measure this week could conjure any national conversation with multiple scandals plaguing the White House, exactly how the administration plans to turn the page on these embarrassments is a mystery.

Whatever leftover goodwill the president mustered from his hairline victory over Mitt Romney in last year’s election will be needed just to weather the storms currently over his head. Though the math of any kind of impeachment may be even less likely, the only outcome less imaginable than either closing Guantanamo any time soon or effectively teaching Yemeni detainees to hold no grievances against the United States, is President Obama holding any semblance of a reputable civil rights record intact by the time he leaves office.