Forcing Obama's Hand on Guantanamo

Republicans are looking for openings wherever they can find them. The monstrous $3.6B budget, the Obama administration's proposal to limit deductibility of charitable donations, the equally appalling proposal to charge veterans' own insurance for service related injuries, and the series of ethically hobbled appointees have given them an array of choices. Emboldened by an increase in the number of Democrats willing to take issue with the president's gargantuan tax and spending plans and an erosion in Obama's poll numbers, Republicans are increasingly willing to target the president, and not just "the Democrats" generically.

Bill Kristol suggests that no topic is more inviting, or more critical to the country, than Guantanamo. He writes:

Obama is, for PR reasons and PR reasons only (and not very good PR reasons at that), committed to closing Guantánamo. GOP members of Congress can make clear just how dangerous the remaining Guantánamo detainees are, and how irresponsible are some of the proposals for sending them abroad or trying them in the criminal justice system. The GOP should seek the release of the Defense Department report on terrorist acts by some of the less dangerous detainees released from Guantánamo under the Bush administration. Republicans can seek to slow or reverse Obama's decision, requiring that he certify that closing Guantánamo will not endanger American lives, providing funding for Guantánamo in the budget whether or not Obama wants it, and so forth. Lots of Democrats would have trouble opposing such efforts.

Well, it seems that the Republicans are not unaware of this opportunity. In Sunday's Washington Post, Sen. Mitch McConnell asked the key question regarding Guantanamo: why move deadly terrorists from a secure facility to fulfill a campaign pledge? And he has some needed detail to the discussion which is rarely provided by mainstream media outlets:

They receive three meals a day. They are free to worship five times daily and provided with prayer beads, rugs and copies of the Koran in their native languages. They send and receive mail. The prison library offers more than 12,000 items in 19 languages (a favorite DVD, according to the librarian, is Deadliest Catch and a favorite book is the Arabic translation of "Harry Potter"). Medical care is said to be excellent. It is hard to imagine these men being treated nearly as well anywhere else in the world. Indeed, one European official who visited in 2006 called Guantanamo "a model" prison and better than the ones in Belgium. On my visit, the first detainee I came across was riding a stationary bicycle. This is not Abu Ghraib.

McConnell concludes the test should be for any alternative:

Will it keep Americans as safe as Guantanamo has? If the answer is no, the administration must explain why fulfilling a campaign promise or pleasing European critics is a more important consideration. President Obama was right and courageous to rethink an artificial deadline on withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. As we approach another artificial deadline, it's my hope that he has another change of heart.

(Well that bit of knife-twisting is likely aimed squarely at the netroot crowd which is slowly coming to the realization that there is precious little difference between George W. Bush's Iraq policy and Obama's.)

The Obama team no doubt expected to slide by the entire issue with a rather disingenuous executive order and hyped public signing ceremony. The president was going to "close" Guantanamo. But like so much of his campaign-styled events, that declaration lacked specificity and, most importantly, a willingness to make hard choices. The closing doesn't occur immediately, the alternatives are subject to study, and the downsides of moving the detainees are not candidly discussed with the American people. As Rich Lowry wrote, this is becoming the formula for the Obama administration:

Denounce your presidential predecessor for a given policy, energizing your party's base and capitalizing on his abiding unpopularity. Second: Pretend to have reversed that policy upon taking office with a symbolic act or high-profile statement. Third: Adopt a version of that same policy, knowing that it's the only way to govern responsibly or believing that doing otherwise is too difficult.

Well, this leaves open the possibility, as McConnell urges, that the Obama administration will leave the worst-of-the-worst prisoners at Guantanamo. True, in this case the Obama team certainly has made it more difficult for themselves by declaring their policy of "closing" Guantanamo before Eric Holder traveled there and proclaimed it a professionally run facility. And they have a rabid left-wing base ready to pounce should the president relent and make the sane policy call -- leave the terrorists where they are, stationary bicycles and all.

Now, the Obama administration is nothing if not rhetorically clever. If they need to, they should be able to wriggle out of their self-created predicament. Rename Guantanamo or invite regular tours by Congressional oversight committees. Declare that the "new Guantanamo" is nothing like the "old Guantanamo" with enhanced transparency. Whatever. If the Obama team understands that alternatives to Guantanamo will be scrutinized and the Republicans will rally the public if the detainees are transferred either to the U.S. or to other locations less secure than Guantanamo for the sake of mollifying Obama's netroot base, perhaps the administration will think twice about actually closing Guantanamo.

So Republicans should keep on the case, forcing the administration to confront the hard facts and the reality behind their sanctimonious rhetoric. Whether by public comment or Congressional oversight, they would be wise to keep the Obama team's feet to the fire. If they do, the Obama administration may in the end wind up exactly at the position which Republicans reached long ago: there really is no good alternative to Guantanamo.