23 January 2009

Obama and Club Gitmo

Yesterday, President Obama signed a number of executive orders, the most notable one being a mandate to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by this time next year.

Let's first be clear: The Gitmo issue is incredibly complex. It is not as simple as Sean Hannity would like you to think, nor is it as cut-and-dried as the haughty, sponge-kneed likes of Kofi Annan and Paul Krugman believe.

Sen. McCain promised to likewise close Gitmo if he had been elected, so in all reality, most astute political observers knew Gitmo's days were numbered.

I do believe, however, that the speed with which Obama decided to sign this executive order is troubling, and evinces, at least to me, his priorities. I think highly of Obama's national security team -- defense secretary Bob Gates and national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones -- and trust that each man has the president's ear. But the fact that moving to close Gitmo was effectively Obama' first move as commander-in-chief doesn't say much to me about how serious he is about national security. I hope I'm wrong.

Let me say that I see where Obama and the Democrats are coming from vis-a-vis Guantanamo and waterboarding (the subject of another of the president's executive orders).

I believe that due process rights are not simply unique to American citizens. Once a person is tried in any sort of American court -- state, federal or military tribunal -- the Constitution cannot simply be tossed out the window. As an originalist, and a student of the Federalist Papers and the American Revolution, I do not believe the Framers intended the provisions of the Constitution and Bill of Rights to be exclusive to citizens of their fledgling republic. Likewise, the United States is not merely a party to the Geneva Convention (the provisions of which, in my opinion, do not apply to a terrorist picked up in a Baghdad market with dynamite strapped to his chest) -- it also, under President Reagan, ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture. While the Geneva Convention focuses on the individual detainees and countries' treatment thereof, the Convention Against Torture has a very clear focus on the actions of the individual countries. I have read it, and based on my reading, it does not differentiate between prisoners. The obvious thrust is to hold individual parties to the treaty to a certain standard of conduct in all their dealings with prisoners.

Finally, as Sen. McCain noted more than once during the campaign, in the wake of World War II, the United States government prosecuted Japanese interrogators for their use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique. Sixty years on, it does not do much for America's moral standing in the world to engage in the same type of behavior it condemned, no matter what the reason.

But while Obama is able to effectively ban waterboarding, he cannot un-ring the bell that opened Guantanamo in the first place.

During the campaign, he liked to speak of his supposed vocal opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and 2003. Instead of studying a realistic exit strategy-- perhaps like the one proposed by his vice-president -- he offered full-throated support for a swift and immediate withdrawal of virtually all U.S. forces -- this despite the fact that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group concluded long since that beyond a shadow of a doubt, such a move would throw Iraq into a full-on civil war.

He likewise campaigned hard against Guantanamo Bay, promising to close the detention facility. However, the very real question has surfaced as to what he plans to do with the hundreds of prisoners -- including Khalid Shiekh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 -- that Gitmo houses. Obama knows full well that these prisoners' home countries -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, et al. -- have already refused to repatriate them. What will he do? Would he really entertain housing them on the U.S. mainland? If so, how does that differ from the procedures at Gitmo? Will he re-release them into the mountains of Afghanistan? Will he mandate to their countries of origin that they must be repatriated, or else? If so, what does that do for America's standing in the world, which Obama promised to mend? Will he try them in U.S. courts?

As cerebral and open-minded as Obama's supporters claim him to be, such actions in the national security arena evince an alarming shallowness and a lack of understanding. He simply can't un-ring the bell, close his eyes and make the Guantanamo problem go away. These prisoners are in the United States' control, for better or for worse. And many of them -- in particular, Khalid Shiek Mohammed -- are fueled by a visceral hatred for the United States and bent on wreaking destruction on us again.

It would have been much more encouraging -- and productive, no doubt -- to see the president form a blue-ribbon commission to study the various legal and political ramifications -- both national and international in scope -- of Guantanamo. Members could have included the likes of McCain, Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar, Iraq Study Group veterans Lee Hamilton and James Baker, and a cross-section of other moderates from both parties. Obama could have even tapped Jones, his national security adviser, to chair the committee.

What Obama and most others in this debate don't understand is that there is no simple answer to this question. One of the fallacies of the Bush years -- as noted by Woodward -- was that the war on terror is some sort of simplistic endeavor. Questions of success or failure, as Bush's team came to realize, cannot be evaluated on body counts. Likewise, Obama seems not to have grasped that simply closing down Gitmo -- with no plan to deal with the terrorists housed there -- is simply a hollow "moral" victory. If the Bush years taught us anything, it's that the 21st century is not that easy.

Instead of moving forward thoughtfully and in good faith, Obama engaged in the same kind of rash decision-making that he so criticized Bush for during the campaign. Has he thought about the consequences of closing Gitmo, or what he'll do next?

This supposedly nuanced leader has dealt with an incredibly complex issue -- and one with enormous ramifications on our national security -- like a fifth grader.

I genuinely worry that Obama doesn't understand that his first priority as president of the United States is not "human rights," socialized medicine, wealth redistribution, education, or even "hope" and "change."

It's national security. Period. End of discussion.


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Anonymous said...

Everyone seems to want the Constitution to apply to non-citizens, but no one is able to articulate a good reason for that, but instead bleat about human rights or some other abstraction.

If a person is tried in an American Court they may be entitled to the same processes as a citizen, but non-citizens need never be tried in a court at all. We can do whatever we please with them, constitutionally. This is not to say that we should not deal justly and fairly with all non-citizens, but this is a matter of our character, not a compulsion of our Constitution.

The Geneva Convention is an unconstitutional treaty. It contains provisions which Congress could not have constitutionally passed on its own authority, thus the treaty was not made under the authority of the United States according to Article VI.

The Geneva Convention is also an unwise treaty. It was made with the gentleman wars of Europe in mind. Now it acts as an artifical restraint on western powers fighting against a much more radical threat. In war the enemy sets the rules of engagement. Our enemy has clearly established that anything goes in this war and we should respond accordingly.

Trying to point to our stance on waterboarding 60 years ago is a futile gesture. 60 years ago we vaporized hundreds of thousands of civilians in a total war, both with nuclear weapons and fire bombs. If you want to find a way to kill people and achieve military objectives "morally" then forget about it. If you want to win then crush your enemy as quickly as possible so as to avoid a prolonged bloodshed. Waterboarding private Joe was pointless because he had no useful intelligence. Waterboarding ringleader terrorists on the other hand is highly useful.

It would be nice if the west would grow a spine and regain its old cultural assertiveness. If we fail to do so we will defeat ourselves. The terrorists won't even have to bother.