Guantánamo comes home

Instead of closing Guantánamo, Obama has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the h

Instead of closing Guantánamo, Obama has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the home turf.

It was cold but that didn't matter. Strings of coloured lights still dangled between lamp posts and for progressives across the world, Christmas was far from over. On 22 January 2009, just two days after taking office, Barack Obama issued an executive order that committed the White House to closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility within a year. "We are going to win this fight. We are going to win it on our terms," he said, and many of us believed him. The US president seemed once and for all to be ushering in a new morning for America, which, unlike Ronald Reagan's false dawn 25 years earlier, would see the country truly becoming "prouder, stronger [and] better". Sam Stein of the Huffington Post predicted that the "blotch on America's image abroad" would soon be wiped clean. Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said: "With the stroke of a pen, President Obama will make great progress toward restoring America's moral authority." How wrong they were.

I cite Reagan because he, more than any other US president, seemed to lay the groundwork for the nightmare of the George W Bush years. Reagan gave the international community - if such a community can be said to exist - a taste of what was to come in 1983, when he sent troops to the Caribbean island of Grenada following a coup. He called Grenada a "Soviet-Cuban beachhead" and justified the invasion of the tiny country (with a population of about 100,000) by invoking the major paranoia of those years: the red threat. When the United Nations condemned Reagan's "intervention" as "a flagrant violation of international law", he was unmoved. The president responded to the criticism with a tasteless quip: "It didn't upset my breakfast at all." The UN tried to pass a motion deploring the invasion but the US simply vetoed it. In 2002, Bush would cement this arrogant, dismissive attitude to international consensus and law with his national security strategy.

By moving to scrap Guantánamo Bay so soon after coming to power, Obama reassured his supporters, both within and outside America, that a dark chapter of US history was coming to an end. It was a powerful symbolic gesture that suggested that the rule of international law would be heeded once more by the White House. As the second anniversary of the Cuban camp's "final closure" date nears, however, some 170 prisoners remain imprisoned there. Eight inmates have died at Guantánamo since 2002. Two years ago, Dick Cheney claimed that the detainees were the "worst of the worst" and that the "only other option" to their unlawful incarceration was "to kill them" - yet, of the 770 held, more than 550 have been freed without charge. What's worse, over half of those still languishing in the camp's degrading conditions have already been cleared for release.

As we know now, Obama was and evidently is no cure for the US's addiction to rough "justice". I am convinced that his intentions remain noble; yet an administration must be judged not by its hopes alone (no matter how audacious) but by its actions and by what happens under its watch. In May, when Osama Bin Laden was executed by a team of commandos who had no intention of acting within internationally agreed legal protocols (even their presence in Pakistan was a violation of the country's sovereign territory), Obama confirmed that little has changed when it comes to American foreign policy. His vastly increased use of drone attacks, meanwhile, has led to the deaths of twice as many suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban members as Bush imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.

On Thursday, the Senate passed the National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA), which, in effect, formalises the right of the military to arrest and indefinitely detain alleged terrorist operatives without trial, including US citizens. Obama was against the bill and the White House was expected to veto it; but, after what the lawyer Wendy Kaminer in the Atlantic called "cosmetic efforts to obscure the bill's threat to American[s]", the president signed it off.

The ambiguities of the NDAA's phrasing, as well as the broadness of what constitutes a suspected terrorist, has raised alarm on both sides of the political spectrum - Tea Partiers such as Rand Paul have bemoaned its passage in terms not dissimilar from those of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. "The rights we lose now may never be restored," said Rand. "We could see American citizens being sent to Guantánamo Bay." Tom Parker, policy director of counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International USA, said on 15 December: "The NDAA provides a framework for 'normalising' indefinite detention and making Guantánamo a permanent feature of American life."

So much for the promise of 2009. Bush gleefully fashioned the US as a rogue state, publicly celebrating its illegal wars in a way that would probably have made even Reagan blush. Obama, for all his evident unease at the country's continued moral decline, has become the first president since the McCarthy era to pass indefinite detention legislation. Instead of closing Guantánamo, he has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the home turf.

Photograph: Getty Images

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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