Opinion

Obama's Guantanamo Groundhog Day

Have you heard the president wants to shutter Gitmo? Of course you have.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: President Obama just pledged to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Of course you've heard it before. You've heard it for nearly a decade.

As for the latest iteration: As usual, the White House arranged a small amount of pomp in the announcement. Obama delivered his remarks on live television from the Roosevelt Room — notably without taking questions from the press. Reporters might have asked a few tough questions, or even remarked on the déjà vu experience — a final rendition of an annual farce.

Few of the arguments have changed over the years. Obama once again claimed that the the operation of Guantanamo's detention facility gives Islamist terror groups a major recruitment propaganda point. That claim has always been suspect. The original raison d'être of al Qaeda was the so-called American "occupation" of Muslim land via our military and diplomatic presence in Asia and Africa. Their original targets, outside of the World Trade Center in 1993, reflected their earliest demands — bombings on Americans housed in the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, two in 1998 at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 that killed 17 American sailors. All of these terrorist attacks, and the 9/11 attacks in 2001, took place long before the detention center at Guantanamo was refurbished for potentially unlawful combatants captured by our military, intelligence services, and allies.

Even if al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban mention Guantanamo Bay in their propaganda, is it reasonable to believe that this is the primary driver of anti-American hatred in their recruiting territories? Drone strikes in their neighborhoods matter more than a handful of would-be terrorists sitting in one particular prison over another. Our continued military presence in the Middle East and diplomatic presence in Asia and Africa matter more as well. We pursue those policies because they enhance our national security, and we don't back down just because terrorist groups dislike it. Why should Americans agree to transfer terrorists to the U.S. to pander to the unpanderable?

Obama has offered this argument since before winning the presidency in 2008. Americans have heard it repeatedly enough to recite it from memory. And yet the idea of closing Gitmo and moving its detainees to the U.S. has grown increasingly unpopular over the last eight years. In Gallup's last poll on the question in mid-2014, 66 percent of respondents opposed Obama's pledge while only 29 percent supported it. Seven months later, Rasmussen surveyed the question and got 29/53. Pollsters finally quit asking about the policy when it became clear that the broad consensus among Americans wasn't changing, no matter how often Obama made the argument.

At this point, Obama just sounds desperate. His new plan, the president claimed, "would lower costs by up to $85 million a year. Over 10 years, it would generate savings of more than $300 million. Over 20 years, the savings would be up to $1.7 billion." To call this a fraction of federal spending would be to engage in wild overstatement. The annual "savings," assuming they would exist at all, would amount to 0.0021 percent of Obama's proposed FY2017 budget of $4.1 trillion, and only 0.015 percent of current defense spending ($585 billion in FY2016). The infinitesimal savings would only require that we move terrorists into American prisons, located in American communities.

One argument was particularly strange. "But 15 years after 9/11," Obama scolded, "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." Voters can be pardoned for scratching their heads and asking, Who's been in charge the last seven years? That's not an indictment of Guantanamo — it's an indictment of Obama's leadership. Congress repeatedly modified the military commission process to meet the demands of Obama and other Democrats up to and including in 2009, but this administration has dragged its heels on using those processes in a petulant bid to get Congress to agree to close Gitmo. Eric Holder once announced that he would unilaterally try the 9/11-linked detainees in New York, only to get shouted down by Democrats like Chuck Schumer.

Small wonder, then, that Congress has followed the broad consensus on Obama's demand. They passed a bill making it illegal to transfer Guantanamo Bay detainees to the U.S. on a bipartisan basis; Obama signed it into law as part of the budget process. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan both reminded Obama of this after his Gitmohog Day performance on Tuesday, and Ryan pledged that the law would remain in place. At least we know spring is just a few weeks away.

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