On Tuesday morning, President Obama finally delivered on his eight-year-old promise to close down the Guantanamo Bay prisoner detention center.
In a press conference, he announced the proposal that his administration submitted to Congress today. In Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook’s press release posted on the Department of Defense’s website, he outlines four major tenets that the proposed plan hopes to accomplish, including transferring detainees to foreign countries and securing locations in the U.S. for detainees that cannot be sent overseas.
During his speech, Obama stated that Guantanamo was not only a moral stain on America, but has also sucked up unnecessary funding and resources—we spent over $450 million on it last year, and would spend a projected $200 million in this next year if we were to keep it open for its 100 detainees.
“5 years after 9/11—15 years after the worst terrorist attack in American history—we’re still having to defend the existence of a facility and a process where not a single verdict has been reached in those attacks—not a single one,” Obama noted.
Obama actually ran on the promise of closing down Guantanamo Bay in 2008, and it was one of the strong hopes many individuals had for his administration. Unfortunately, like many of his campaign promises, it fell by the wayside.
In this speech, Obama attempted to defend that record, stating that, “In one of my first acts as President, I took action to begin closing it. And because we had bipartisan support, I wanted to make sure that we did it right…unfortunately, during that period where we were putting the pieces in place to close it, what had previously been bipartisan support suddenly became a partisan issue.”
He continued that, “Suddenly, many who previously had said it should be closed backed off because they were worried about the politics. The public was scared into thinking that, well, if we close it, somehow we’ll be less safe. And since that time, Congress has repeatedly imposed restrictions aimed at preventing us from closing this facility.”
This is a running theme of Obama’s presidency. While he certainly has progressive ideas and values, during the first signs of conflict with Congress (or more specifically, the Republicans), he will back off and drop important efforts. We witnessed this with the public option during the healthcare debate, the lack of gun control legislation after the Sandy Hook shooting, and the sheer indifference to reigning in big banks or regulating Wall Street, among a myriad of other instances.
This phenomenon is what Yale professor David Bromwich accurately summarized as such: “The thin connection between Obama's words and his actions…[says] that he [mistakes] his preferences for convictions –[but] he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do.”
Obama certainly preferred to have Guantanamo Bay closed—but would not follow through with conviction when it became difficult.
The reason this is all significant is because of the uphill battle Obama will face in having his proposal passed by Congress.
Because only 35 prisoners are eligible to be transferred to foreign countries, at least 65 prisoners would need to be transferred to facilities in the U.S. Currently, it is illegal to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil, so Congress would need to vote primarily on lifting these restrictions.
Yet Senate Majority Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor that, “Congress acted over and over again in a bipartisan way to reject the president’s desire to transfer dangerous terrorists to communities here in the United States.”
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan similarly expressed that “[Congress] will not jeopardize our national security over a campaign promise.”
In a Republican-controlled Congress, let’s be frank: this proposal has little to no chance of passing.
Thus, Obama’s only remaining option may be to enact, once again, executive action.
According to Reuters, “Obama is considering taking unilateral executive action to close the facility, situated in a U.S. naval station in southeast Cuba, if Congress does not vote to allow transfers to the United States.”
Now, in his last year of office, rather than passively letting things go, Obama has actually taken significant executive action in the face of a fruitless Congress—he has announced executive orders concerning immigration reform, gun control, and equal pay, all of which are important issues that he originally campaigned on.
In these instances, he has finally shown the leadership we expected of him when we voted in 2008 and 2012. We can only hope that he takes a similarly strong stance in definitively closing down Guantanamo Bay, despite the incessant fear-mongering and rhetoric of the GOP.