The Long Game On Gitmo


Daniel Klaidman reports something I’ve also picked up from my sources: that “Obama plans to address both Guantánamo and drones—another festering, controversial element of the administration’s national-security agenda—in a broad ‘framing’ speech that will try to knit together an overarching approach to counterterrorism.”

The speech could well serve as the White House’s opening shot in its new campaign to solve the Guantánamo riddle. But Obama’s critics will be skeptical—likely branding it another attempt to bend the arc of history with mere eloquence. It would fit a pattern on rule-of-law issues, they say, in which Obama’s lofty rhetoric is rarely followed by resolute action—especially when it comes to standing up to Congress. According to this narrative, Obama expresses righteous indignation, but then is persuaded by his political team that the time is not right to fight. Or he threatens to veto legislation that shackles him on Guantánamo, but then fails to go through with the threat. The dynamic, critics say, creates a self-fulfilling cycle that emboldens congressional Republicans and weakens the president.

There’s plenty of evidence to support this interpretation of events. On the other hand, it also arguably downplays the blunt reality that any president needs to prioritize his policy initiatives. When Team Obama began its bid to close Guantánamo in 2009, it was still trying to stave off economic depression, save the banking system, and bail out the auto industry. Later, Obama chose health-care reform as his signature domestic initiative—an all-consuming political struggle that left the White House with little bandwidth to fight on multiple other fronts. Something had to give. For Obama, it was Gitmo.

His supporters also argue that instead of giving up, Obama has shifted to a long-road strategy, which sometimes requires backing down from epic confrontations in the hope that over time the politics will turn his way. In at least one area—prosecuting suspected terrorists in civilian courts—that approach may be working. Though Obama caved to criticism and backed down on trying KSM in court back in 2011, he subsequently decided to have a string of captured terrorists tried in the civilian justice system, the latest being Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston bomber. Over time, the criticism has dwindled to barely a peep.

(Photo:  A protestor wears an orange prison jump suit and black hood on his head during protests against holding detainees at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay during a demonstration in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on January 8, 2013. By Saul Loeb./AFP/Getty Images)