On Thursday, we witnessed the official birth of what will become President Obama’s foreign policy legacy. His announcement of a kinder, gentler but more precise approach to America’s biggest overseas challenge revealed many things; it also left many questions. As part of a shift in focus, it appears that GITMO, the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, is to close as President Obama’s speech reshapes the war on terror.
Guantanamo Bay, which houses enemy combatants – most of whom have been captured on the battlefield – has long been criticized by the President as creating a focal point for mistrust, hatred and outrage in the Muslim world, despite the fact that the largest terrorist attack on American soil was carried out prior to Guantanamo Bay assuming its current role.
Obama pledged to close the detention facility when campaigning for the White House. To date, he has failed to do so, in part because of determined political resistance. During Thursday’s speech, he once again pushed for the prison to close and the detainees to be transferred to other countries or tried on U.S. soil. “Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO. I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions,” The President said. “To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.”
President Obama acknowledged, during his speech,that certain detainees presented problems that his proposals did not address. He referred to those who have plotted against or attacked U.S. troops or facilities but whose cases are hampered by a lack of evidence or evidence that, he said, was inadmissible in a court of law. The president provided no clear, immediate solution to these problems, saying “…once we commit to a process of closing GTMO, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.”
A major concern for many Washington politicians, and – more importantly – for the American people, is the enormous security implication of having foreign terrorists housed in facilities in the United States; it is not so much the possibility of such inmates escaping, which would be unlikely in the extreme, as the prospect of such a site – or sites – becoming potential targets themselves. Housing these detainees on the U.S. mainland will inevitably lead to enormous additional security expenditure and the prospect of tightened restrictions on movement in and around the area of such sites. This raises the long-standing issue of balancing freedom with security. Locations involved with both the detention of terrorists and the legal proceedings involving them will be under heavy surveillance and subject to enormous increases in police, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and even military presence.
In laying out his intentions, regarding Guantanamo, the President has set the stage for a new confrontation with congressional Republicans, in addition to a heated debate in the country as a whole.
Obama’s Thursday speech did not focus exclusively on the detention and prosecution of foreign terrorists, however: President Obama discussed the heavily debated use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones – as they are more commonly known – to eliminate terrorists or strike at terrorist assets in remote regions of the world. The President insisted that he had ordered the carrying out of such strikes – which have killed four Americans since 2009 – with the full knowledge and approval of Congress. He went on to express his belief that such methods were a vital component of America’s anti-terror strategy, going forward. Such operations, he said, would minimize civilian casualties and avoid the diplomatic entanglements of putting American boots on the ground. To emphasize his point, the President discussed the enormous diplomatic rift with Pakistan that the SEAL Team 6 operation to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden had caused.
Considering the considerable public concern over the prospect of armed drones being eventually used in the United States, it is worth noting that the President addressed this issue directly. Attorney General Eric Holder had previously failed to satisfy congressional questions, regarding such fears. “I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process. Nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.,” Obama said.
Critics of the President have often – and with some justification – accused him of appeasement of certain foreign powers that are known to have sponsored and sympathized with Islamist extremists. It is no secret that the President believes that the United States itself, through certain foreign policy initiatives and military interventions, has fostered a sense of injustice and animosity among those who currently wage war against us. In his speech, Obama briefly appeared to perpetuate that belief. By lobbying Congress to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, he believes that many in the Islamist movement will be mollified. The war on terror – he appears to conclude – will be won through reason and the acknowledging of America’s failings. Although he took care not to blame America directly, as he has in the past, when speaking before foreign leaders. He spoke of “…addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North Africa to South Asia.” He also cited “poverty and sectarian hatred” as being among the causes of such conflicts.
During this part of the speech, the President went on to make remarks that will raise a sense of foreboding in many. Although the Muslim Brotherhood, who have risen to power in Egypt, have – clearly – no intention of bringing democracy to that country, Obama spoke of “…supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists.” Notably, he failed to express support for those in Egypt who now oppose the anti-democratic policies of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The President also touched on the issue of the current turmoil in Syria. “We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements – because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny of terrorism,” he said. It seems unclear how he intends to do this, considering the fact that the Syrian opposition is largely controlled by extremists. He did not elaborate further. Neither did he give the Israeli-Palestinian issue more than a passing mention.
The Commander-in-Chief laid out a path which continues to wind precariously through the minefield known as the war on terror and, in doing so – many are saying – he effectively declared an end to that war. In pushing for the Guantanamo Bay Prison to close, the President is attempting to reshape the war on terror. It remains to be seen, however, if he will finally achieve his, so far, four-year mission to close the detention facility.
Written by Graham J Noble