It has been said that the best-laid plans often go awry. So it was with an oft-repeated promise by Barack Obama to close the prison at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay. On January 22, with just two days’ experience in the presidency, Obama signed orders to close the base on the southeastern end of Cuba. But it was a promise that was not brought entirely to fruition, despite Obama’s efforts throughout his tenure. It is a lesson that President Donald Trump may wish to examine when he sets out to accomplish the ambitious program he has set for his administration, which includes deporting thousands of criminal aliens, strengthening the southern border of the United States, or cutting back on bureaucratic spending.
The confinement center at the Guantanamo naval base had gained infamy in liberal circles for its imprisonment of Muslim terrorists, many of whom were captured on the many battlefields of the War on Terror during the Bush administration. Deemed too dangerous to be brought to the U.S. to face justice, they faced lengthy imprisonment under military guard. News of inhumane treatment and even forced feeding of hunger strikers were widely circulated and affected diplomatic relations with America’s allies.
Bipartisan support for closing Gitmo
During the 2008 presidential campaign, closing “Gitmo” was promised by Obama’s primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, as well as his eventual Republican contender John McCain, who had suffered in a North Vietnamese prison camp during the Vietnam War. All appeared to be set for closing the detainment facility so reviled. Few issues so distinguished Obama from his predecessor. The Bush administration, in which there was considerable debate over Guantanamo, released 532 detainees, having recognized that some of them had been victims of fabricated charges.
Throughout his administration, Obama sought to close the facility but did not. Of the 242 detainees he inherited from the Bush administration, he released all but 41. He released four on January 19. Of the detainees who were released under either Obama or Bush administrations, at least 12 are believed to have returned to terrorist activities that have resulted in the deaths of Americans.
The path of least resistance
In March 2016, at an appearance in Ohio, a child asked Obama what advice he would give himself if he could go back in time. Obama answered, “I think I would have closed Guantánamo on the first day.” He added that because political resistance to his plan had stiffened, however, “the path of least resistance was just to leave it open.”
Obama faced resistance from Democrats and Republicans who, when they found out that detainees might possibly be put in their districts, put up a fight that even tough-nosed White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel could not defeat. The Obama administration simply did not wish to expend political capital by insisting on Gitmo’s closure when there were other issues at stake, such as the automobile manufacturers’ bailout and Obamacare. Obama’s self-imposed deadline for closing the facility came and went while his administration continued to negotiate with foreign government for placement of the detainees it released.
Obama's critics on the left were not satisfied with his administration’s explanations for the delay. In 2013, while addressing students at the National Defense University, Obama told his listeners, “Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law,” he said. “Our allies won’t coöperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo. During a time of budget cuts, we spend a hundred and fifty million dollars each year to imprison a hundred and sixty-six people, almost a million dollars per prisoner. . . . There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened.”
It was then that a female protester interrupted Obama’s speech. She said, “Excuse me, President Obama, You’re the Commander-in-Chief—”. Obama cut her off and continued, “Imagine a future—ten years from now or twenty years from now—when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country,” he said.
“Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike. I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack, because it’s worth being passionate about. Is this who we are?”
It was as if he were protesting the very government he was supposedly operating.
In the end, even when Obama contemplated issuing executive orders to bring remaining prisoners to the U.S. for trial, the closure of Guantanamo proved to be impossible. Not even winning the Nobel Peace Prize proved to be of any help to him.
We have found that the enemy is us
President Trump seeks to cut government spending, besides building a physical barrier along the country’s shared border with Mexico and promising to deport hundreds of thousands of criminal aliens. He will find that even with advocates as forceful and convincing as the incoming Secretary of Homeland Security Gen. John Kelly -- who once strongly pushed for keeping put the Guantanamo detainees -- that corralling the varied interests of several departments of government, and dealing with legal and diplomatic entanglements, will require a great deal of his time and energy. Since both of those commodities are often in short supply, questions arise. On which issue will he focus? Unforeseen challenges may arise that might displace his priorities, even as much as he would like to accomplish them.
The challenges that Trump faces are already formidable. That is already known. It is in accomplishing his promise of making America great again that he will see resistance, not only from Democrats and progressives, but even from Republicans who either do not share his vision or out of self-interest will be a drag on the Administration. It may now be up to President Trump, after winning an unheralded electoral victory, to achieve a political victory by running against his own government.