One of the sad realities of the Obama presidency is that he and his administration have had to spend so much of their time cleaning up messes that were left by Bush and Cheney. I won’t try to capture all of them, but two wars in the Middle East, an economy careening towards a second Great Depression and exploding federal deficits are the three big ones. When President Obama titled his 2015 State of the Union Address “Turning the Page,” a lot of what he was saying is that his administration was finally ready to move on from most of that.
But one intransigent mess lingers on…the prison Bush/Cheney built in Guantanamo, Cuba. President Obama is determined to close Gitmo before his term ends and the White House has been clear that they are drafting a plan to do so.
This week right wing media sites have gone a bit berserk over the fact that two more detainees have been released. The first was the man who was reported to be Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard.
The former detainee, Abdul Rahman Shalabi, 39, is from Saudi Arabia, and he was one of 32 Middle Eastern men who were captured by the Pakistani military along the Afghanistan border in December 2001 and turned over to the United States. He was among the first batch of detainees taken to the prison when it opened at the American naval station in Cuba on Jan. 11, 2002.
Second was the last of several British residents and citizens who have been held at Gitmo.
The Obama administration has notified Congress of its intent to send Shaker Aamer, a suspected al-Qaeda plotter held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than 13 years, back to Britain, yielding to a lengthy campaign to secure the British resident’s release, officials said Friday.
For a status update on where things stand with closing Gitmo, the New York Times has some helpful graphs. Of the 771 detainees who have been held there, 657 have been released and 114 remain. Of the 53 who have been cleared for release but are still there, 43 are from Yemen. The Obama administration has been reluctant to repatriate detainees to Yemen due to the chaos that currently exists in that country. Ten detainees have either been convicted or await trial. Finally, as a testament to how badly the Bush/Cheney administration handled all this, the remaining 51 have been recommended for indefinite detention without a trail – mostly due to the fact that evidence has been tainted by their treatment (read: torture).
In December of last year, Pope Francis offered to help the Obama administration in their efforts to close Gitmo. This is very likely one of the topics he and the President discussed in their one-on-one meeting this week. I would assume that the Vatican might be most helpful in working with countries to provide alternatives for the 53 who have been cleared for release. No matter how controversial plans for that might be, you can be sure that whatever President Obama proposes to do with the remaining detainees (10 convicted/awaiting trail and 51 to be indefinitely detained), there will be howls from both sides of the political spectrum. The left will suggest that they shouldn’t be held at all and the right will complain because President Obama’s likely solution will be to move them to a maximum security prison(s) in the United States.
I will simply say that one of the problems that is endemic to cleaning up your predecessors messes is that there is almost never a way to do so that pleases everyone. Nothing more ably demonstrates that than Gitmo. Perhaps the one thing that everyone can agree with is that President Obama deserves some credit for his determination to not leave this one to the next president.