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Can Obama finally shut the door on the Guantanamo embarrassment?

US president Barack Obama has renewed his promise to close the controversial US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The prison camp is currently the scene of a hunger strike by numerous inmates, some…

Inmates at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Does the prison do the US more harm than good? EPA/Scott Applewhite

US president Barack Obama has renewed his promise to close the controversial US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

The prison camp is currently the scene of a hunger strike by numerous inmates, some of whom are being force fed to keep them alive.

Describing Guantanamo as a waste of taxpayers’ money that has damaged American foreign policy, Obama said he would try again to persuade Congress that “this is something that’s not in the best interests of the American people".

He put his case simply: a “recruitment tool for terrorists” that “hurts us in terms of our international standing” is “not necessary to keep America safe". Obama’s logic may well be sound, but shutting down Guantanamo will be far from simple.

The president will need to clear some steep political hurdles.

The single greatest hurdle to razing the notorious prison camp is the lack of agreement in the US about where to put the 166 remaining detainees.

Barack Obama faces significant challenges in his second attempt at closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. EPA/Paul Vernon

Transferring them to a US prison and dealing with them in US courts is presently not an option. In 2009 Congress passed legislation prohibiting the federal government from funding trials for Guantanamo detainees. The legislation also prohibits housing these individuals in a prison on US soil. Transferring the detainees to a foreign country’s prison system is similarly problematic, since there are real concerns that some countries may simply release them into the community without considering possible security risks.

Even the 89 detainees the US government believes can be safely integrated back into the world continue to face uncertain futures at Guantanamo Bay. Congress requires the arguably impossible guarantee that these detainees won’t ever pose a danger to the United States. It is unlikely than any senior government official would be prepared to offer such a guarantee.

There are, of course, real terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, who, given the opportunity, would take up – or, in some cases, return to – fighting against the United States. Detaining men such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, is legitimate so long as it is done pursuant to the laws of war.

The problem with Guantanamo was that it was established as a law-free zone, a place where terror suspects could be detained and interrogated without due process and the most basic human rights. The prison quickly became an international embarrassment for the Bush administration, and has left an indelible stain on a nation still deeply affected by the events of 9/11. Even Bush himself conceded, towards the end of his presidency, that the US would be better off without Guantanamo.

The hunger strike is a vivid reminder that the Guantanamo issue is far from resolved. Despite improvements in conditions at the prison in recent years – torture is no longer sanctioned and detainees now have access to lawyers – Guantanamo is, in many respects, a deeper problem today than in 2009, when Obama took office. Congress is the principal culprit here.

Senior Al Qaeda operative and alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed still being held at Guantanamo Bay after being arrested in Pakistan in 2003. EPA

In consigning the remaining detainees to legal limbo, and preventing them from being moved anywhere, it effectively ensured Guantanamo would remain one of the most counterproductive elements of US national security policy.

Confronted with the intransigence of Congress in 2009, the White House backed down, believing it unwise for the President to invest political capital in closing Guantanamo – especially when polls suggested that a significant majority of Americans favoured keeping the prison open. Since then, Obama has been largely silent on the issue. His decision to set aside the moral quandary of Guantanamo for political reasons angered civil libertarians, but at the heart of the decision was a realistic calculation that this was a battle he would almost certainly lose.

Some commentators have suggested the hunger strike may be a game-changer. It has certainly awakened Obama from his strategic four-year slumber on Guantanamo. But the President will have to be more than just awake if he is to deliver on his failed first-term promise to shut down the prison, which continues to provoke so much anti-American hostility around the world.

He will have to lobby Congress to change the legislation preventing the federal government from trying detainees or transferring them to US soil. If that fails, persuading Congress to loosen their unreasonable restrictions for releasing detainees to foreign countries would be another option.

However he chooses to proceed, Obama will have his work cut out for him. With the Boston terrorist attack still fresh in people’s minds, and polarisation in Washington as deep as ever, a national security compromise between President and Congress over Guantanamo Bay appears highly unlikely

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. John Kerr

    IT Education

    What a moral dilemma. The country that tells everyone that it is the height of law, order and justice that established a prison without law, order and justice or all of the things that distinguish a civilised nation from dictatorships and despots. I think Guantanamo Bay has been one of the biggest stains on American foreign policy and has to be closed. All of the inmates deserve to be tried and released if found innocent (let's face it, quite a few of them have been found totally innocent and…

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to John Kerr

      Living has always been full of moral dilemmas John and we may want to criticise the US for what they have done and still do in many respects but where do you think the free world as we know it and many living in many countries would be without their input either directly or through support.

      Sure, there will always be some developments that could be questioned and even collateral damage as it may be termed when innocents are killed or otherwise affected and so hatred is created or continued on…

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    2. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Greg North

      Yo cant know much about what was, and probably still is, going on there Greg. That jail isn't anything to defend, by anyone.

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  2. Robert Down Jr

    Internet tough guy

    "[Guantanamo] ... has left an indelible stain on a nation still deeply affected by the events of 9/11".

    Has it??

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    1. Bob Down

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Robert Down Jr

      What would you know loser? Get your own name or at least try and be original, fool.

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  3. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    " He will have to lobby Congress to change the legislation preventing the federal government from trying detainees or transferring them to US soil. If that fails, persuading Congress to loosen their unreasonable restrictions for releasing detainees to foreign countries would be another option. "

    It seems the President may be the Chief of their Armed Forces but Congress still has much control and whereas that may be the way it ought to be, it certainly gives Australia a good example of a political system we can well do without.

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  4. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Excellent piece.

    What a tangled web we weave... particularly when we are acting out of fear and let lawyers try and sort things out with bureaucratic fantasies that transcend sense and reason. And we end up with a geographical fiction purportedly beyond the reach of law all built on a historical left-over from the Cold War. Absurdity built on absurdity.

    And we're going down the same path with our excisions of the Australian mainland as an immigration zone and the like. Flimsy legalistic policies don't make them legal.

    I don't think Obama will have the time or the political capital to solve this business myself - this will take decades.

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  5. James O'Neill

    Barrister

    There are a number of points that could have been made in this article but weren't. Obama's own review board has cleared 88 of the inmates for release, acknowledging that they should not have been there in the first place, and they pose no threat. Yet two years later they are still incarcerated. This is worse than disgraceful.

    Obama also unilaterally decided that he would not allow the release of Yemenis, who make up the largest single group among the 88. This is because a Nigerian would-be…

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  6. Tony Simons

    Director at Bedlam Bay Pty Ltd

    George Bush, Dick Chaney and Rumsfeld should be tried as a war criminals and publicly shamed for torture at Guantanamo and renditions and torture at secret locations.

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  7. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    "there are real concerns that some countries may simply release them into the community without considering possible security risks."

    Well yes, most of them were soldiers, by their own and other reckoning. Want to forbid religious wars? Good idea, but not by torturing, sometimes to death, in semi secret camps, shall we. America really leave a bad smell on this issue, and makes the word 'democracy' into a joke. It's high time that mess got cleaned up, and the people held repatriated to ´where they came from. Some of them isn't even soldiers, just people that happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time..

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