In any litany of the failures of policy of the Obama Administration, the question of Guantánamo ranks high on the list.
The Bush Administration, in the white heat of post-9/11, absentmindedly improvised a solution to problem of the capture of prisoners of war – but in a war against a non-state entity. It chose an extra-legal method since Supreme Court decisions have set a precedent that non-citizens are entitled to the same legal rights as citizens under the constitution. And since the nationality of the party at which the U.S. was at war could not be identified, these were a new kind of POWs who for lack of a better rubric fell into the rubric of criminals.
But if they were simply labeled “criminals” and brought into the American justice system, that meant that captured terrorists would be read their Miranda rights and might escape the kind of interrogation so necessary to get at the intricate connections they knew of the international terrorists world. And, obviously, as in any other war, it was not predictable how long such prisoners would have to be held, but increasingly seen as a long and bitter struggle. Guantánamo became, then, not only a center for imprisonment but an important intelligence gathering point in a war which perhaps more than other relied on subtle analysis of a complex social and religious as well as political and military puzzle.
That was the amorphous situation the Obama Administration inherited. But as part of his extensive and intensive effort to woe both Muslim leadership and popular opinion in what he saw as an effort to defuse the threat of Islamic terrorism, candidate Obama had announced he would close Guantánamo. He unilaterally decided that that the war had ended even though progress ensued with the death of Al Qaida leadership there was certainly no sign of surrender on the other side.
Furthermore, Obama and his supporters have argued that Guantánamo is a powerful factor in instilling hatred and rationale for the Islamic terrorists. This is often part of a general argument that American foreign policy has, in fact, created the jihadist threat. Of course, it is to be remembered that Guantánamo did not exist before 9/11 and most students of Islamic terrorism would argue that its existence, rarely alluded to in jidhaist propaganda, is hardly an important factor in the long list of complaints of America’s enemies in the Islamic world.
Obama’s legal beagles suggested that such prisoners could be tried successfully in domestic courts as criminals rather than as part of an overall Islamic terrorist conspiracy. And the Administration has had some successful prosecutions to back up this contention. Yet both pubic opinion and the Congress have consistently opposed the closing of the facility and the transfer of its inmates to federal prisons in continental U.S. In no small part, this has been seen as the introduction of a new threat to peace and stability inside the U.S.
On the issue of how they would face justice, the general public, as bemused with the complexity of the legal questions as most experts on the law, are probably less sure. But earlier proposals by the Bush Administration for military courts which might try and release captured prisoners who in the highly contested warfare in Afghanistan might well have been innocent bystanders were abandoned by the Pentagon, apparently at the insistence of the Obama Administration. Thus, the Guantánamo POWs were stranded at considerable government expense and in a legal miasma which aggravated American exponents of the rule of law as well as Obama and his supporters on the issue.
In a stubborn resolve to back up his campaign promise – repeated again periodically in public statements since taking office – Obama is insisting he still wants to close the facility. And as a way of going around the Congress, he has been using his legal and virtually unlimited power of pardon as chief executive to transfer inmates to any country willing to accept them. These have included everyone from Saudi Arabia to Uruguay. The Saudis have admitted that some of these transfers, having undergone what ostensibly was reeducation, have again defected to groups opposed to the regime and/or allied with the worldwide spreading networks of various jihadist groups. Uruguay, flatly and publicly, while accepting a group of former prisoners has not even made a promise it would keep them under surveillance or prevent them from leaving the country. It is unclear what has been happening in the releases to other countries.
Whether the recidivism – that is the return of former prisoners to active participation in jihadist conflict – is the 30% which critics contend, or merely the 6% the Administration is willing to admit, it is obvious Obama’s strategy is reinforcing the multiplying jihadist movements through the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The numbers are not necessarily indicative of what is happening. It has been the experience of everyone from the British during the Irish Republican terrorism and the Israelis with Palestinian terror prisoners that most develop new sophistication during imprisonment. Some, of course, see the errors of their ways and abjure their former pursuit of violence. But many are not only confirmed in their former beliefs, announce them from the rooftops or obfuscate them and through association with other like-minded – and given the generous facilities for communication offered at Guantánamo – become more sophisticated candidates to continue their campaign against the U.S. and other Western targets.
All this, of course, is taking place at the same time that the Obama Administration is pursuing a campaign to assassinate jihadists, often with virtually anonymous drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq. In at least one celebrated instance, this meant taking out an American citizen without a death sentence in an American court – another element in the increasingly jungle of Washington’s intent. These strikes have resulted in significant “collateral damage”, i.e., civilian casualties sometimes including wives, other women, and children, and presumably innocents. That the campaign may be an effective tactic in destroying the leadership and defusing the jihadist movement can certainly be argued, e.g., the pursuit and assassination of Osama Ben Ladin was a highly successful psycho-political blow which probably helped cripple the jihadist leadership for a period.
Meanwhile, all this is done under a rubric in which the Obama Administration refuses to name the terrorists as Islamic, apparently in its continuing effort to court mainline Muslim official and unofficial opinion. For despite the continued expressions by Western leaders of their faith in Islam as a religion of peace, there is a huge body of Quorani and hadith [anecdotal material around Mohammed and the history of the prtasctice of Islam] that can be used for rationalizing jihadist activity.
This Obama strategy is not simply an issue of nomenclature. It has two important effects: it makes it more difficult for those in the fight against the jihadists to examine the Islamic aspects of their doctrine and its appeal particularly to the young Muslims, especially those in the West who have been attracted to the fighting against the al Assad regime in Syria. They have already in at least a half dozen instances returned to take up jihad in their home countries. Perhaps even more important, by refusing the association of “Islam” with the terrorists, the Obama Administration is making it even more difficult for those few Muslim voices – not the least Egyptian Pres. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – in their call to Muslim clerics to take on a reformation of their religious concepts which have been used by the jihadists.
Thus we have the anomaly of the Obama Administration spending billions of dollars and in some instances exposing American military lives to a pursuit of the jihadist leadership at the same time it is reinforcing it with the release of prisoners from Guantánamo. Every war has its contradictions, usually brought on by the inevitable need to collaborate with unsavory allies, but this may be the first one in American history where the executive is waging war against itself for no reason other than to sustain dubious campaign promises made almost a decade earlier.