Commentary Magazine


Americans Mixed on Gitmo

The tide of international public opinion is decisively against Guantanamo Bay. Obama’s recent decision to close down the controversial detention center may be sincerely motivated by the premise of “boosting America’s image abroad.” Domestically, however, it will be a tougher sell because Americans seem to harbor mixed feelings toward Gitmo. Here’s Gallup:

Americans are sending no clear mandate on the issue. Slightly more think the United States should not close the prison than say it should, 45% to 35%. These views are similar to those expressed in 2007, at which time 33% favored closing the prison but 53% were opposed and 13% had no opinion. The major difference since that time is that slightly fewer now favor keeping the prison open (from 53% to 45%), and slightly more do not express an opinion (from 13% to 20%).

I don’t mean to suggest that major policy resolutions should be decided by public opinion polls. But these figures reflect the complexity of Americans’ attitudes toward Gitmo, which should therefore not be characterized as a black and white issue. It’s a complicated matter deserving serious consideration rather than political manipulation along partisan lines. Obama is taking on a risky political gamble with his hasty move to close down Gitmo. More from Gallup:

President Obama’s most loyal supporters — Democrats and liberals — do lean decisively toward closing the U.S. prison there. But Americans overall do not express such a clear preference, and in fact are more likely to prefer keeping the prison open. While swift action to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay will draw a clear dividing line between the policies of the Bush Administration versus the Obama Administration, it is more likely to be well-received by Obama’s most loyal base of support than by the broader cross-section of Americans who have generally given high marks to Obama’s presidential decisions so far. If Obama does choose to close the prison, which these data suggest would go against public opinion, at least to an extent, it could provide an early test of how much Americans’ high ratings of Obama to date will reflect the more controversial decisions Obama, as president, will now be forced to make.

A similar poll conducted last year by Rasmussen likewise suggests Obama hasn’t persuaded Americans on this issue. The poll’s results are from November of 2008: by a 49% to 32% margin, Americans reported that they do not think the prison should be closed. However:

Fifty-five percent (55%) of Republicans and 54% of unaffiliated voters say Obama is very likely to close the prison in his first year as president…

Even though Americans expected Obama to close Gitmo, and in spite of their confidence in Obama and support for his decisions, they are still unconvinced that closing this detention center is the right way to go. Whether they will change their minds after the fact remains to be seen. But even if they do give him the benefit of the doubt for now, the faintest hint of trouble on the terrorism front will retroactively make this move problematic.