This month, Connie Bruck of the New Yorker has an excellent article titled Why Obama Has Failed To Close Guantánamo which details and explores the past 7 years of attempts and efforts and failures to deal with the Guantánamo problem.
What makes this a particularly useful article is that it is not just concerned with the unique legal and ethical problems of the Guantánamo Prison, but also the challenge of implementation for administrators, particularly in public service.
When Obama began his first Presidential campaign, in 2007, the idea of closing the prison facilities at Guantánamo seemed to be gathering political force. Both Hillary Clinton, Obama’s main opponent in the Democratic primaries, and McCain, the Republican nominee and a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam, endorsed it. But Obama spoke about the issue with particular passion. “In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values,” he said.
President Obama made the closing of Guantánamo one of his central issues during his 2008 run for President, arguing that its existence and continued use created a dissonance with America’s values and efforts. Indeed, as Bruck notes, the prison posed larger practical problems for working with the world. Secretary Clinton knew these challenges first hand as Guantánamo was used against her in negotiations and conversations, an unnatural, unwanted weight that limited America’s ability to meet its goals around the world.
But we live in a highly polarized time, and there are legitimate national security concerns with some of the prisoners. While there can be a fair and productive debate about the implementation of closing Guantánamo, that debate largely didn’t happen after Obama took office.
As the Administration was planning to move the Uighurs, Congress was working on legislation that would temporarily prohibit bringing detainees to the United States. With the provisions gathering momentum, Craig recalled, he got a call from Senator Dianne Feinstein, a longtime proponent of closing Guantánamo, saying, “Do you guys care about all this stuff? Because no one’s here from the White House—no one’s pushing back.” By then, White House officials were consumed with other issues, particularly with lining up votes for the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s foremost domestic initiative. “Rahm’s job was to get the President’s agenda through,” a former high-ranking White House official told me. “He said, Why are we going to waste our political capital on detainees? No one is going to give you any credit for closing Guantánamo—and you’re willing to risk being the only Democratic President to solve the health-care problem?”
For what feels like many issues, closing Guantánamo took a backseat to passing the Affordable Care Act, which required nearly every ounce of Obama’s political capital. This has been argued for the past 6 years for why immigration reform and other efforts never happened, and I’m sure this will be debated by scholars as to whether the gains under the ACA were worth giving up smaller movements in other efforts. To his credit, the President realized what was happening but felt that the ACA was the most important thing he could accomplish and would do so even if it cost him reelection.
Implementation, however, was always the key challenge with closing Guantánamo. It is an expensive prison, both financially and ethically. Had it been a priority, with special care and effort paid to make sure that Congress’s efforts to keep it were tied up, one could imagine that it could be closed down within a term. This isn’t the only implementation problem for the President, as noted by the awful Healthcare.gov rollout. It is a lesson and warning to all public administrators that however sound, popular, and just the policy is, implementation is half the battle, and if you want to make an effective change, make it quick with energy and a deadline.