Guantanamo transfers: an empty gesture?

The transfer of 70 detainees to Illinois simply passes on the problem

So, what are we to make of the Obama administration's decision to transfer about 70 of the remaining 250 or so Guantanamo detainees to the US mainland?

The White House yesterday released a memorandum directing the federal government to purchase the prison, in order to "facilitate the closure" of detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay naval base by securing the transfer of roughly 70 inmates (according to Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois) to the correctional centre in the town of Thomson, Carroll County, Illinois.

The decision to move the detainees to the facility at Thomson (population 559) is an interesting choice, on all sorts of levels.

In part, Barack Obama is doubtless being a touch wily and seeking to stall the barrage of criticism he will be in for, come 22 January and the passing of the year in which he said that he would have Guantanamo closed. It will also provide a good number of jobs -- some sources say up to 2,000 -- and $1bn of federal funding in an area feeling the economic downturn acutely.

But he will take considerable flak from the Republicans, some of whom are already talking of the "risks" the move poses to the American public. In an expensive pre-emptive pandering to such cynically stoked fears, the prison -- which already features cells built of precast, reinforced cement, will now be retrofitted to exceed even "super-max" security standards, according to a letter sent to the governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But this is hardly going to quell Republican concerns that Guantanamo detainees just shouldn't be in America, period.

A more serious question the Republicans might have addressed is whether the move will defuse Guantanamo as the terrorist recruiting station it has come to be viewed as around the world. The answer here is, of course, no. The question was never about the "where" of Guantanamo itself; it was always about the "how" of detainee treatment and the United States' commitment to international law. And unless steps are taken to expedite detainees' passage through open and transparent legal processes, nothing about the world's indignation against it will change.

Indeed, the use of the term "detainee management purposes" in Obama's order yesterday was chillingly reminiscent of the neoliberalist jargon deployed to such horrid effect during the Bush era. Moreover, as at the "old" Guantanamo, the "new" Guantanamo will be run not by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but by the defence department, yet another way that these detainees are cleaved from the legal system.

But amid all the brouhaha about the decision, there are three important things to remember.

First, this is a response to the real difficulty the White House has encountered in finding other places to take the detainees. For all the love-in surrounding Obama's trip to Norway last week, for example, even the Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre has declined to take them, and in no uncertain terms. "Guantanamo is the United States' responsibility," he said last month.

Second, it takes some of the heat (and we ought not to be distracted by this) away from the fact that the move does nothing to resolve the fate of the detainees among this number who will continue to be held indefinitely. Nor does it deal with the question of the treatment of detainees slated for transfer elsewhere -- those whose transfer to Yemen is actively being discussed in particular.

Third, it reminds us that the real problems of Guantanamo still have not been addressed by the present administration. Obama was very good on the symbolism of closing the base at the beginning of this year. He has been less good at addressing the broader legal quagmire of Guantanamo (including the policy of rendition). Moving those who are to be tried by refangled military commission (which the Obama administration could have dropped, but has chosen to continue with) does not address that problem; it simply passes it on.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue