The Endless Spiral of Futility Over Closing Gitmo

When news of an ongoing hunger strikes among detainees at Guantanamo Bay drew a question to the president about the situation at this morning’s press conference, a lot of people listening or reading the transcript had to do either a major memory retrieval or some quick research. Gitmo? Oh yeah, Gitmo.

Q: [From Bill Plante]:Mr. President, as you’re probably aware, there’s a growing hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, among prisoners there. Is it any surprise, really, that they would prefer death rather than have no end in sight to their confinement?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, it is not a surprise to me that we’ve got problems in Guantanamo, which is why, when I was campaigning in 2007 and 2008 and when I was elected in 2008, I said we need to close Guantanamo.

I continue to believe that we’ve got to close Guantanamo. I think — well, you know, I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.

Now Congress determined that they would not let us close it and despite the fact that there are a number of the folks who are currently in Guantanamo who the courts have said could be returned to their country of origin or potentially a third country.

I’m going to go back at this. I’ve asked my team to review everything that’s currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I’m going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interests of the American people.

Basically, the president made another strong statement about the need to close Gitmo, but then promised no more than another “review” of the situation and then a “reengagement” with Congress. The basic problem is that you can’t close Gitmo without sending the detainees somewhere else, and other countries won’t take them unless we do, and Congress won’t let us take them. There’s an additional complication in that some of them would normally be sent to Yemen, where there’s significant al Qaeda activity.

The National Security Network did a good backgrounder on the deteriorating situation at Gitmo last week. What it really comes down to is whether the administration is willing to expend the political capital to have another fight with congressional Republicans on this subject and perhaps break the endless spiral of futility. In the meantime, as Obama himself seemed to be suggesting in his own remarks, there’s a growing realization that if something doesn’t happen soon Americans–and not just civil libertarians or “liberals”–are going to look back on this whole sordid episode with shame.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.