May 29, 2009
Some Americans may think they're looking tough by refusing to allow any Guantanamo Bay detainees to enter the United States, whether as prisoners to face trial or as people who were incorrectly swept up – like the Chinese Uighurs – and have been deemed no threat to U.S. security.
President Barack Obama and some Democrats may think they're acting smart in pandering to these fears by proposing extra-constitutional "prolonged detention" for Islamic militants (Obama) or by joining the Republican-led NIMBY chorus of "not in my backyard" (such as Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Jim Webb of Virginia).
But the real-life consequence of this panic is to make the United States – and President Obama – look weak in the eyes of the world, and that weakness is already having negative effects.
For instance, with Americans unwilling to let even the Uighurs onto U.S. soil, other countries are balking at requests that they take other detainees who have been judged not a threat.
"If the U.S. refuses to take these people, why should we?" said German parliamentarian Thomas Silberhorn. "If all 50 states in America say, 'Sorry, we can't take them,' this is not very convincing." [Washington Post, May 29, 2009]
Beyond exacerbating the difficulty of relocating Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared of wrongdoing, the political firestorm against accepting any inside the United States is undermining Obama's foreign policy in other ways, according to intelligence and diplomatic experts whom I've spoken with in recent days.
The image of America as "scaredy-cat nation" – and of Obama's perceived inability to get even a Democratic-controlled Congress to approve $80 million for closing down Guantanamo – have emboldened foreign leaders who have new reason to doubt the new President's toughness.
According to these sources, the undercutting of Obama on Guantanamo has had repercussions from Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is resisting pressure on settlements and peace talks, to North Korea, where recalcitrant communist leaders responded to a U.S. demand for dismantling their nuclear program by conducting a test nuclear explosion.
One foreign intelligence source said Obama would have been better off showing his command by shutting Guantanamo down immediately rather than promising to do so within a year and letting the Republicans figure out a way to turn the issue against him.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell made a similar point on CBS' "Face the Nation" on May 24, criticizing Obama for not moving faster on closing Guantanamo and "frankly giving enough time to opponents of it to marshal their forces as to why we shouldn't do this."
The U.S. news media also has contributed to the hysteria. The New York Times published a misleading article on May 21 about the findings of a Pentagon study, prepared in the last month of the Bush administration, claiming that one in seven of the 534 detainees released from Guantanamo have "returned" to militant activities.
While playing up the one-in-seven number, the Times buried deep in the story the fact that the Pentagon report was based on flimsy or secret evidence and that only a handful of the supposed recidivists had actually done more than talk tough or associate with undesirables.
Only five "have engaged in verifiable terrorist activity or have threatened terrorist acts," the Times reported near the end of the story. That would be fewer than one in 100, not one in seven.
After the Pentagon report was officially released on May 26, analysts Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann reviewed the data and concluded that the Pentagon's "numbers are very likely inflated" because the Pentagon included ex-prisoners who were "suspected" of having engaged in militant activity and others whose acts weren't aimed at the United States or its allies.