A long time ago, Senator Barack Obama explained why the detention facility at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay needed to close. "Our legitimacy is reduced when we've got a Guantanamo that is open," he said during a debate in June 2007. "Those kinds of things erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles."
More than eight years later, after getting a significant promotion, he hasn’t changed his mind. "For many years it’s been clear that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our security," President Obama said on Tuesday at the White House. "It undermines it. … This is about closing a chapter in our history."
Guantanamo Bay hasn’t changed much in those eight years, either — it still exists. It still reminds the rest of the world about the terrible things a country can do when fighting a war on terror. It still continues to hold detainees indefinitely, though there aren't a great many left; after 15 years of hunger strikes, alleged abuse, and endless or nonexistent trials, only 91 remain.
President Obama sent a plan to close Gitmo to Congress this week. Citing the heavy costs of running a remote facility for fewer than 100 people — and the fact that it's being used as a recruitment tool for terrorism — he says that the remaining detainees should either be sent to existing prison complexes in the U.S. or transferred abroad. Given the President’s popularity in the Capitol’s hallowed halls, not to mention the ideological snow forts built to last throughout the election cycle, it would take a miracle for the plan to make it past the legislature. In failing, the plan would leave behind one of Obama’s biggest frustrations with the Bush administration. It would also serve as a reminder for the President's followers just how difficult it can be for a candidate to keep certain promises.
In his first week in office, Obama signed executive orders to close Guantanamo and ban torture. He didn’t say it would be simple, arguing on ABC that his goal of shuttering the facility during his first 100 days would be "a challenge."
"It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize," Obama added. Americans had heard similar words before; in 2007, President George W. Bush said, “I did say it should be a goal of the nation to shut down Guantanamo. … Whether or not we can achieve that or not — we'll try to. But it is not — it's not as easy a subject as some may think on the surface." (By the end of his presidency, Bush had decided not to shut it down.)
Following the signing of those executive orders, Gitmo opponents were disappointed by the lack of a timetable, while Republicans were incensed by the idea of transferring detainees to prisons in the U.S. They stayed angry, too; a few years later — after Obama had been reelected, and was still pledging to close the facility — Senator Lindsey Graham said in a floor speech that "the American people don’t want to close Guantanamo Bay, which is an isolated, military-controlled facility, to bring these crazy bastards that want to kill us all to the United States."
Many Americans agreed with Graham back then, and seemingly still do; Gallup has been tracking the opinions of voters on this issue for years, and, throughout the Obama presidency, only 30 percent of people have ever thought it was a good idea to close Gitmo and transfer detainees to the U.S. People also have long been skeptical of the closure plans themselves; a Huffington Post/YouGov poll from summer 2015 showed that just 14 percent of Americans think the detention center will close by the time Obama leaves office.
Those doubts are reasonable. Obama has been saying that Guantanamo would be closed by January 2017 for nearly his entire presidency, but those words haven’t yet made it happen. Back in 2009, he emphatically told applauding guests at a fundraiser, "We’re closing Guantanamo," and also brought up his executive order when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize later that year. But when asked about Guantanamo at a press conference 10 months later, the President hedged. "Well, we have succeeded on delivering a lot of campaign promises that we made,” he said. “One where we’ve fallen short is closing Guantanamo. I wanted to close it sooner. We have missed that deadline. It’s not for lack of trying. It’s because the politics of it are difficult."
As years have gone by and the lights have stayed on at Gitmo, several detainees have publicly described alleged abuses: threats, sleep deprivation, being doused in freezing-cold water. Some of those still at the facility have been waterboarded, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was named the "principal architect of the 9/11 attacks" in the 9/11 Commission Report.
At his final State of the Union in January, the President said he would "keep working" on it. And on Tuesday, when announcing his new plan, he said, "If it were easy, it would have happened years ago, as I wanted." He added, as per usual, "The politics of this are tough."
Capitol Hill, never a welcoming environment for Obama’s policies since the Republicans took over, is one of the many reasons Gitmo has merely faded over the past few years — holding fewer and fewer detainees, and making fewer headlines — instead of closed. Congress passed various bits of legislation that have made it impossible to transfer detainees to the U.S. — bans that would have to be lifted for Obama’s new plan to work. Given that the plan was described by congressional Republicans as "dangerous," "foolish," "dead-on-arrival," and an "election-year distraction” on Tuesday, that seems unlikely to happen.
On top of that, the plan’s lack of specifics has frustrated one of the few Republicans who agrees with Obama. Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and who supported closing Guantanamo during his own presidential bid, said in a statement on Tuesday, "Congress has waited for seven and a half years for President Obama to provide a plan to achieve his goal of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. What we received today is a vague menu of options, not a credible plan for closing Guantanamo."
The President’s plan does mention a few options for where to put the 50 or so detainees that won’t be released due to their perceived threat level (one of which is a federal prison in Florence, Colorado, where Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is being held), and the Pentagon has been inspecting 13 possible federal and military prisons in Kansas, South Carolina, and Colorado.
To be fair, picking the right place to move those prisoners to can’t be easy, judging by how the facilities on the short list have responded to the plan. On Tuesday, South Carolina politicians, for example, found many synonyms for "Hell, no!" to convey their position. “We will fight any attempt to bring terrorists into our states," Governor Nikki Haley said. Senator Tim Scott and Representative Trey Gowdy both called the suggestion "reckless." Democratic politicians in states where the detainees could be moved — especially those up for election, like Colorado senator Michael Bennet — have also blanched at Obama’s plan, at least the parts that involve their turf.
If Obama’s plan fails — and the prognosis does not look good — he could always close Gitmo through executive action. But given how well his orders on undocumented immigrants and his carbon emissions plan are doing right now (both are snarled up in the legal system), that route may also prove perilous.
Which leaves Obama … maybe passing this mess on to his successor. Just like his predecessor did.
Unlike in 2008, though, the likely general-election contenders won’t agree on the issue. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both think that the facility should close, while the Republican candidates are competing to see who can be the most supportive of Gitmo’s continued existence. "Expand it, and let’s have some new terrorists there," Senator Ted Cruz said on Tuesday.
“Not only are we not going to close Guantanamo," Senator Marco Rubio said, "if we capture a terrorist alive, they are going to Guantanamo and we are going to find out everything they know." In December, Donald Trump said, "I would leave it just the way it is, and I would probably fill it up with more people that are looking to kill us." Trump also has said that if he were president, "I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."