President Barack Obama, quite out of the blue, has renewed his long-dormant effort to close the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. “I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo,” he said in April. “Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing…It needs to be closed.” Just a few days ago, he added, “GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”
If that’s the case, then the president can count himself among the guilty. After all, the president has had four years and five months to close the terrorist penal colony at Guantanamo. Indeed, two days into his presidency, he directed the Pentagon to shutter the detention facilities “no later than one year from the date of this order,” vowing to return America to the "moral high ground.”
Suffice it to say that when Obama and his lieutenants want to do something, they do it, as they have proven with scores of questionable executive actions. (See the administration’s extra-constitutional appointments, regulations flouting the letter and spirit of federal statutes, intervention in Libya, use of HHS to shake down the healthcare industry, and the many examples of abuse of power: Solyndra, bugging the AP, using the IRS to micro-target Tea Party groups and “punish our enemies,” purposely misleading and airbrushing facts out of Benghazi to preserve the 2012 campaign’s fatuous “tide of war is receding” narrative.) When the president wants a cause, on the other hand, he pretends his hands are tied, as in the case of Guantanamo.
Reasonable people can and do disagree about the terrorist detention facility. One group says the prison is “contrary to who we are” and “contrary to our interests,” as the president puts it. The other group contends it’s an imperfect solution to a very difficult problem—the least bad option in this post-9/11 world. Count me among the latter group.
It’s the least bad option because the other alternatives—sending detainees back to their home countries or transferring them into the United States—are not viable.
Sending detainees back to their countries of origin is, quite simply, self-defeating. A 2012 report produced by the intelligence community concluded that almost 16 percent of the 602 detainees that have cycled through Guantanamo returned to terrorism, and another 12 percent are suspected of doing so. That’s a recidivism rate of about 28 percent—uncomfortably high when it comes to people willing to turn themselves into guided missiles.
Moreover, concerns about host-country security make transfer a risky proposition. In 2010, for instance, the president ordered a full-stop on transfers to Yemen after it was discovered that al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch (AQAP) was planning to blow up a U.S.-bound flight. However, last month, he lifted that ban.
The Yemeni government is building a “rehabilitation” facility expressly for the 56 Yemenis held at Guantanamo. But given that AQAP orchestrated prison breaks in 2003, 2006 and 2011, Yemen’s capacity to hold Guantanamo parolees is very much in doubt, as is the efficacy of terrorist-rehab programs. A Saudi program—with far more lavish spending and incentives than Yemen could ever provide—dubiously claims a reintegration rate of 80 percent.
As to transferring the detainees to stateside prisons, bipartisan majorities in Congress have repeatedly made clear—most recently in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act—that Guantanamo detainees may not be transferred into the United States. A bill currently being marked up would block the administration from transferring remaining detainees to the U.S. or to undependable foreign governments like Yemen.
A hundred Guantanamo detainees are currently on a hunger strike, protesting alleged mishandling of their Korans, which the U.S. military denies. It’s important to note that such tactics and claims are standard operating procedure for al Qaeda and its partners. An al-Qaeda training manual offers jihadists clear guidelines for using our justice system—premised on the twin notions that the accused is innocent until proven guilty and that the state’s power should be checked—against us. Among the instructions:
• “Resort to a hunger strike.”
• “Insist on proving that torture was inflicted.”
• “Complain of mistreatment while in prison.”
• “Take advantage of visits to communicate with brothers outside prison.”
• “Create an Islamic program for [brothers] inside the prison.”
That last piece of advice helps explain why Guantanamo detainees shouldn’t be transferred to stateside prisons. The president points to “a whole bunch of individuals who have been tried who are currently in maximum security prisons around the country…the individual who attempted to bomb Times Square…the individual who tried to bomb a plane in Detroit…a Somali who was part of Al-Shabaab” as proof that Guantanamo’s jihadists can be moved stateside without risk. But that’s not what worries opponents of stateside transfer. What’s worrisome is that once mainstreamed into the U.S. prison system, Guantanamo’s lifers would recruit other inmates to their jihadist cause and radicalize individuals who might one day be released—something they cannot do from inside the Guantanamo penal colony.
Even Janet Napolitano’s Department of Homeland Security—the people who replaced “terrorism” with the Orwellian term “man-caused disasters”—recognizes radicalization as a real problem, announcing in 2011 a federal-state effort “to develop a mitigation strategy for terrorist use of prisons for radicalization and recruitment.” Testimony before House and Senate committees reveals that “up to three dozen Americans who converted to Islam in prison have travelled to Yemen to train with al-Qaeda.” High-profile terrorists like Jose Padilla, Richard Reid and Michael Finton converted to jihadism in prison.
Media mantras notwithstanding, the Bush administration—just like the Obama administration—wanted to close the prison facility at Guantanamo. But the Bush administration concluded that the alternatives—letting sworn enemies of the United States loose or summarily executing them on the battlefield or shipping them back to untrustworthy regimes—were worse.
The Obama administration has found a way around this conundrum: an unrelenting barrage of drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and other fronts in what used to be called the “global war on terror.” The results are not for the squeamish.
• The Brookings Institution estimates that, along with the 3,300-plus militants killed by drones in Pakistan, nearly 600 non-militants may have been killed.
• The Washington Post reports that a growing number of drone strikes in Yemen target individuals merely “suspected” of having links to terrorism.
• According to a New York Times portrait of the inner workings of the drone war, the White House has embraced a controversial method for determining civilian casualties that “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” The report describes the president as “at the helm of a top-secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.” He studies “mug shots and brief biographies” of possible targets, approves “every new name on an expanding ‘kill list,’” “signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan,” and often decides “personally whether to go ahead” with a drone strike.
If that sounds like a commander-in-chief fulfilling his primary responsibility of protecting the nation from its enemies, then so does the Bush administration’s decision to open a makeshift detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. President George W. Bush’s motives in shipping enemy combatants to Guantanamo was to protect the country. Of course, motives mean nothing to Bush’s critics.
Bush’s successor is learning that motives don’t matter to critics of the drone war, either, which means Nobel Peace Prize holder Barack Obama finds himself on the wrong side of global opinion—exactly where Bush spent his presidency. According to a Pew survey, the drone war feeds “a widespread perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally and does not consider the interests of other countries.” Indeed, what looks like a successful counterterrorism campaign to Americans, looks very different to international observers. “In 17 of 20 countries,” Pew found, “more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” Moreover, the UN has formed “an investigation unit” within the Human Rights Council to “inquire into individual drone attacks…in which it has been alleged that civilian casualties have been inflicted.”
“Reliance on drone strikes allows our opponents to cast our country as a distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor of death,” argues Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “It builds resentment, facilitates terrorist recruitment and alienates those we should seek to inspire.”
To borrow a phrase, it seems the drone war hurts our international standing.
This is not an argument in defense of international watchdogs tying America down. The UN secretariat may refuse to recognize America’s special role, but by turning to Washington whenever civil war breaks out, nuclear weapons sprout up, terrorists strike, sea lanes are threatened, natural disasters wreak havoc, or genocide is let loose, it is tacitly conceding that the United States is, well, special. Washington has every right to kill those who are trying to kill Americans. However, the international backlash against the drone war reminds us there is virtually always a downside to U.S. national-security decisions.
When placed side by side, the Guantanamo hunger strikes and the president’s drone strikes leave us with a hard question amidst a hard war: Which is more effective, more humane, more ethical, less damaging to our international standing—to imprison known and suspected enemies of the United States without parole, or to execute known and suspected enemies of the United States without trial?
The moral high ground is a very tiny patch of territory.
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