As American airstrikes hit Syria and Iraq, the conflict grinds on in Afghanistan, the Libyan after-party continues, and we face down international terrorists from Somalia to Pakistan, the Administration is still working to make good on the President’s campaign promise to close Gitmo. According to an Associated Press report:
Administration officials say Obama national security adviser Susan Rice wrote to Hagel in May, laying out Obama’s view that there’s never zero risk in transferring a detainee but that assessment must be balanced against the risk of keeping the prison open.“The president’s expectation is that all detainees who have been determined to be eligible for transfer or release … will be repatriated or resettled from Guantanamo Bay as quickly as possible, consistent with U.S. national security interests,” Rice’s letter said, according to parts read to The Associated Press.
If this report is accurate, NSA Susan Rice, acting for the President, wants the Pentagon to ignore dangers that released Gitmo inmates will go back to terrorism. Closing Gitmo, like the reset with Russia, settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, getting a global climate treaty, winning the war in Afghanistan, putting the world on the road to nuclear disarmament, getting all U.S. troops out of Iraq, and seeking a nuclear deal with Iran, was one of the planks the President ran on in 2008. The others have all arguably been costly failures for U.S. foreign policy (the jury still out on whether we get an Iran deal, but not on how destabilizing the quest has turned out to be for the region).Given what must be an immense frustration in the White House with foreign policy these days, it looks as if pressure to close Gitmo down before President Obama leaves office is building within the Administration. But with U.S. public opinion swinging back to favor tough policies against terror groups, any news that, for example, a prisoner whose release the White House pushed for over Pentagon resistance had gone out and joined ISIS would be toxic for Obama and perhaps for the Democratic brand.
There are important reasons for closing down the prison at Guantanamo, and the President is not wrong to feel that the U.S. pays a price for keeping it open. Before he left office, George W. Bush was trying to close it as well. But so often in foreign policy the devil is in the details. It’s not enough to announce a goal and press toward it regardless; with Gitmo, just trying to push inmates out the door is not a viable solution.
By picking too many goals that were extremely ambitious (perhaps more ambitious than the inexperienced, one-term Senator understood in 2008) and then pushing ahead on them without fully taking into account the difficulties, costs, and trade-offs involved, the Administration has gotten itself into an increasingly complicated and intractable foreign policy mess—one that has also had serious consequences for its standing at home. This is not a good time for the President to double down on ambitious goals at all costs; it is a time to reflect, retrench, and if necessary, pull back from some priorities in order to concentrate his forces on the greatest dangers. The President’s earlier failure to build a non-partisan approach to Gitmo and related issues in a way that could persuade Congress to change the law, combined with the erosion in his political standing as his poll numbers decline and his term moves into its late phase, probably means that no matter what he does, Gitmo will still be operating when President Obama leaves the Oval Office for the last time.
That will be bad news, both for President Obama and the United States, but amid cascading crises and violence, with a foreign policy on the ropes, Gitmo is not the biggest or the most urgent problem we face.