Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Droning On

Four months ago I tried to be provocative by making a comparison between Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama. This consisted of pointing out that both insisted on treating ideologues bent on violently overthrowing their governments as mere criminals rather than as soldiers in an organized campaign. The example, in Thatcher’s case, was the IRA hunger strikers in Northern Ireland who wanted—but were denied—prisoner of war status.

At the time, I could have pointed out that President Obama actually had a hunger strike of his own on his hands—and has had for some time now. The news audience in the UK and Ireland was reminded of this recently when BBC and RTÉ journalists reported from Guantánamo, courtesy of a press junket hosted by the U.S. military. Soldiers explained matter-of-factly to the visiting reporters how they are, as gently as possible they say, force-feeding prisoners who have been on a hunger strike for months.

The first time he was elected, President Obama promised to close Guantánamo within a year. More than four years later, the prison is still in operation and, as he does with so many things, the president blames Republicans. That stance, however, was definitively refuted by Martha Rayner, a lawyer who represents Guantánamo prisoners, in a blistering op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May.

She chided the president for an April 30 press conference in which he asserted that it was Congress that was blocking the transfer of prisoners. Rayner pointed out that full authority to transfer or release any of the prisoners lies squarely with the president. All Congress did (and in overwhelming bipartisan fashion, it should be noted) was to block transfer of prisoners to the U.S. mainland. This does not prevent the president from transferring them anywhere else in the world.

Despite the president’s promise to “close Guantánamo,” his problem is that he doesn’t really want to close it—at least not in any meaningful sense. Yes, he would clearly love to close the facility on Cuban soil the name of which has become notorious throughout the world. (And it should be noted that no small part of that notoriety is due to U.S. politicians who, like the president, raised its profile during the Bush administration.) But the president will close Guantánamo only if he can move the prisoners somewhere else. In other words, he doesn’t want to close Guantánamo but to move it.

He is no doubt aware of the number of prisoners that have already been released and have returned to fight on behalf of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Proponents of closure tend to speak of each and every prisoner as if he is there because of a misunderstanding or an injustice. The president clearly must believe that the remaining prisoners are at least potential threats or he would simply release them—something he has full authority to do entirely on his own.

The president has, though, made sure that no new prisoners have been brought to Guantánamo under his watch. This is because, once terrorists have been identified and located, they are simply assassinated by drone—along with anybody else unlucky enough to be too nearby. The up side for the U.S. government is that there are no new prisoners for people to protest about. The down side is that there is no opportunity to extract information from the terrorists before they are killed.

The irony here is breathtaking. The one positive accomplishment the president could boast about in his reelection campaign was the fact that Osama bin Laden had been killed. In the wake of that accomplishment, there was a debate over whether the information that led to the Al Qaeda leader’s killing could or would have been obtained without waterboarding or other rough interrogation methods. But what no one disputes is that the U.S. would never have acquired the information on his location if Al Qaeda prisoners had not been taken prisoner and interrogated. That sort of information will not exist in future hunts for terrorist leaders because there will be no prisoners with current information to interrogate.

Instead, whatever information security forces will have to work with will come from worldwide monitoring of electronic communications—something that bothers people all over the world, including many within the U.S. The most forceful argument against Guantánamo was always that it was a recruiting tool for terrorists and that it undermined America’s image as a beacon of human values. I think it is safe to say that on the Arab street whatever revulsion remains over Guantánamo has pretty much been eclipsed by the increased use of drone strikes and everywhere else by the NSA monitoring program.

The point here is not that Barack Obama is somehow unusual in not living up to his promises. (Few politicians do.) The point is that it rarely, if ever, pays to get ones hopes up that a new politician will somehow be different from most of the others that have already come and gone. It just feels worse when a new politician has done a particularly good job of convincing you that he is truly different.

After the debacle in Benghazi and the recent precautionary closures of American embassies and facilities in the Middle East, the president has been doing some fancy backtracking from last summer’s crowing at the Democratic convention that “Al Qaeda is on the run.” (At least he didn’t declare “Mission accomplished,” countered one of his defenders on TV one recent Sunday.)

His recent verbal efforts at parsing the difference between “core” Al Qaeda and its offshoots have been kind of painful to watch. To most of us, that kind of finessing is about as relevant as understanding whether our local McDonald’s is corporate-owned or a franchise.

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