Replacing Guantanamo: Where Do We Go From Here?

November 28, 2008 |  Tagged | Comments Off on Replacing Guantanamo: Where Do We Go From Here?

Much of what Barack Obama intends to accomplish as president will have to abide by the rhythm of politics. Drafting new policies, gaining public and congressional support, and shepherding bills through the legislative process are the cost of doing business in Washington. However, there is one messy issue in particular that has the potential to be a political and symbolic trap for the Obama administration. That is the question of what to do with Guantanamo Bay.

A prominent symbol of the Bush Administration’s war on terror, with all the moral ambiguities and international condemnation that entails, closure of Guantanamo Bay has long been a cause célèbre. Almost universally condemned by the political left and world opinion, it is viewed as the kind of thing that only could have happened on Bush’s watch. So naturally there is much hope that our next president, who never missed a chance during the campaign to stress that he was not George W. Bush, will promptly get rid of it. Unfortunately, the fact that this is obviously a good idea does not mean it won’t be messy and difficult.

It’s not that Guantanamo’s closure itself is controversial. Anxiety over the consequences of the United States having a very public prison camp that doesn’t bother with things like due process is no longer limited to Amnesty International and the ACLU. It is increasingly becoming conventional bipartisan wisdom to opine that Guantanamo’s time has come. The costs to America’s image of having its own personal zone where the Geneva Conventions and habeas corpus don’t apply now outweigh the benefits. Even Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Rice have gone on record agreeing that it needs to be closed down.

On the campaign trail and after the election, Obama has been clear about his intent to close the camp, recently reiterating it during an interview with 60 Minutes. However, actually dealing with it will likely be one of President-elect Obama’s first headaches caused by the problems President Bush has left for him to clean up. In a manner similar to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the war on terror in general, Guantanamo Bay is too much of a disaster to not address immediately, but is too complex to be handled easily.

As Stuart Taylor Jr. points out in Newsweek, as bad as Guantanamo has been handled, with its disdain for due process, oversight, or any sort of adequate procedure, there is no question that many of its inmates are legitimately dangerous. And thanks to 8 years of the Bush administration basically making it up as they go along, their legal status is as unclear as it was when we invaded Afghanistan. As Dan Ephron (also in Newsweek) points out, this leaves the Obama administration with dozens of dangerous inmates that might not be able to be prosecuted by conventional means. Releasing them, finding a way to imprison them here, or sending them back to be imprisoned in their country of origin are all troubling and imperfect options. Both Mr. Ephron and Mr. Taylor agree that any solution to the issue is going to have to involve new laws, institutions, and policies that will take time and effort to draw up.

The need to construct a new system to handle the closure of Guantanamo will delay the camp’s closure. On top of this the new policies themselves may leave many of Obama’s supporters disappointed. As Jonathan Mahler points out in Slate, proposed options, like a new set of National Security Courts, have been condemned by human rights and civil liberties lawyers for many of the same reasons Guantanamo itself was condemned. Many of those calling for Guantanamo’s closure have not given much thought to the needs and nature of what will replace it. It will be up to the Obama administration to make the case for the new approaches and institutions they conceive.

For years, the closure of Guantanamo has been called for from many corners. But as obvious as that ultimate step is, the need to build up something to put in its place will represent a version in miniature of many of the Bush-era policies Obama hopes to roll back. This will not be the only issue where Obama must figure out how to reconcile the hope and optimism many of his supporters feel now that the inept policies of an unpopular president are nearly at an end, with the fact that those inept policies were targeted at legitimately complex issues with no clear or easy answer.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user localsurfer.

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