Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Gitmo Staying Open

The New York Times reports that the idea of closing the prison camp at Gitmo is all but dead with the Obama administration:

Stymied by political opposition and focused on competing priorities, the Obama administration has sidelined efforts to close the Guantánamo prison, making it unlikely that President Obama will fulfill his promise to close it before his term ends in 2013.

When the White House acknowledged last year that it would miss Mr. Obama’s initial January 2010 deadline for shutting the prison, it also declared that the detainees would eventually be moved to one in Illinois. But impediments to that plan have mounted in Congress, and the administration is doing little to overcome them.

Highly connected people in both parties agree:

“There is a lot of inertia” against closing the prison, “and the administration is not putting a lot of energy behind their position that I can see,” said Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and supports the Illinois plan. He added that “the odds are that it will still be open” by the next presidential inauguration.

And Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who also supports shutting it, said the effort is “on life support and it’s unlikely to close any time soon.” He attributed the collapse to some fellow Republicans’ “demagoguery” and the administration’s poor planning and decision-making “paralysis.”

And while the administration still says publicly that they intend to close it, privately they agree that it’s not likely:

The White House insists it is still determined to shutter the prison. The administration argues that Guantánamo is a symbol in the Muslim world of past detainee abuses, citing military views that its continued operation helps terrorists.

“Our commanders have made clear that closing the detention facility at Guantánamo is a national security imperative, and the president remains committed to achieving that goal,” said a White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt.

Still, some senior officials say privately that the administration has done its part, including identifying the Illinois prison — an empty maximum-security center in Thomson, 150 miles west of Chicago — where the detainees could be held. They blame Congress for failing to execute that endgame.

“The president can’t just wave a magic wand to say that Gitmo will be closed,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking on a sensitive issue.

I’ve hammered Obama for a great many things, including his positions on the war on terror in numerous court cases, but I’ve not been very critical on this issue. The two situations are different. Obama has sole control over the government’s position in a court case, but closing Gitmo requires congressional action as well. That was always going to require more than just the president’s decision.

I agree with Graham that Republican demagoguery is the reason why Obama has had such a difficult time closing Gitmo. But that’s not the end of the story and it doesn’t let Obama off the hook. There is also the obvious problem of deciding what to do with all of those detainees, how to decide their fate, and on that question Obama has been indistinguishable from Bush.

Oh, he makes grand declarations of principle about the rule of law and the need for civilian trials, which Bush didn’t do, but his actual policy has remained the same. Once he hit up against opposition to civilian trials, he caved pretty much instantly. So he’s left with the exact policy Bush had — military tribunals for some, indefinite detention for others.

The problem, of course, is that while maintaining the same policies, Obama has very publicly declared the principled reasons why those policies are bad. The disparity between words and actions could hardly be more stark. At least Bush never pretended to uphold the rule of law or the concept of due process. Obama is playing pretend while changing virtually nothing.

If he really believed all that lofty rhetoric, he’d be changing the policies. The fact that he isn’t speaks volumes.