After the spectacularly disastrous display yesterday of indecision and incoherence on Guantanamo it is worth reviewing how we, or the Obama administration, got into this mess in the first place. It started as an in-your-face, anti-Bush campaign stunt: Bush is evil and Bush put detainees in Guantanamo, so hope and change means Obama closes Guantanamo. It is fundamentally childish and superficial but that’s the nub of it.
Oh, we’ve damaged our reputation, we were told, and now have to impress our European friends, who by the way show no inclination to change their behavior (e.g. kick in more troops in Afghanistan, expend more on their own defenses, get serious with Iran) regardless of the status of Guantanamo. But the administration rationalized that since we are doing this to impress the Europeans maybe they’ll take some of the detainees. Make sense? No, not really since it’s not clear they’d be all that impressed or that they’d incur the wrath of their own public just so Obama will look better.
And that’s where it all went off the tracks. As Michael Crowley writes:
As a former top Bush administration official told me today for a related print story, if the U.S. Congress refuses to accept a single Gitmo detainee on American soil, even in a Supermax prison, how are we supposed to convince our European allies to do the same thing? If the detainees are harmless we should take some. If they’re terrifying then what rational government would?
Well that’s right, especially because the premise that the Europeans deeply care about this is dubious at best. Oh, but what of the Arab states? They will think so much better of us and shower us with diplomatic favors. Let me get this straight: in Cairo and Tehran they whisper to one another, “If only those Americans would respect international norms of conduct and apply Constitutional principles never before extended to wartime detainees then we’d.. . ” It’s hard to even take it seriously.
In the end this is all about the moral preening of the Obama team who convinced themselves they could both disparage their political adversaries and bolster their own credentials through an ill-conceived publicity stunt. But that’s the difference between campaigning and governing. When you get around to governing a scheme as hair-brained as this is unsustainable. Soon enough we realize that whatever reasons Obama might have for shuttering Guantanamo pale in comparison to the logistical, security, and political problems the closing would create.
Now, he’ll have to figure his way out of this. Or move on to a string of domestic issues and hope everyone forgets. Good luck with that.