How many people have to die before Obama takes personal responsibility for Guantanamo?

"I will go back at this," the President claimed. But when? While he wrings his hands and blames Congress, men who have been denied justice are protesting in the only way they can - refusing to eat.

I am sitting at Guantánamo, looking at something my clients here have in twelve years never viewed: the sea. It is my last day here. This morning one of my hungerstriking clients, Shaker Aamer, refused to come out. This, apparently, is because the camp powers are trying their hardest to break the men’s strike. First was the Camp VI block raid, after which every man was locked in isolation and stripped of his main emotional anchor – his fellow prisoners. The second tactic seems to be to subject each prisoners to such indignities if he wishes to speak to his lawyer that he will conclude that the conversation is just not worth the groping.  Outright censorship looks bad when your motto is "Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent"; so, the authorities have concluded, best to engineer a situation where it looks as if the prisoners "voluntarily" do not come out.

Shaker was not the first to refuse. Another hungerstriking client refused for the same reason yesterday. As I waited for him, in one of Gitmo’s daily ironies, guards in the sally port chit-chatted idly about their favourite foods and US restaurants for forty-five continuous minutes. Which is better; Olive Garden, or Red Lobster? And the lobster itself: delicious, or disgusting bug-like crustacean?

If those guards had ever looked these 130 starving men in the eye and seen their humanity, they showed no sign of it. But I don’t blame them; they are bored young soldiers, perhaps trapped, in their posts, although not as trapped my clients are. Defence officials have proclaimed this strike is a plaintive attention grab. To those who believe this even for a second I say: try not eating for a day. Or two. Then tell me that to starve yourself for over 120 days, as my clients now have, reveals anything other than abject desperation. 

My clients cannot believe President Obama would really have forgotten them and his promise to them at the beginning of his term.  My client Nabil’s jaw drops when I explain that yes, Obama really did close the State Department office that was meant to get cleared men like you out earlier this year – and no, it wasn’t because he assigned some other official to help you. Today, Nabil seems to be no one’s responsibility. 

Obama, when a journalist finally coaxed him into making a public statement about the hunger strike, was tight-lipped and embarrassed – having decided not to do nothing for the 166 souls here for the remainder of his presidency. "I will go back at this," he said. How? When? With more hand-wringing about Congress? The starving men are unimpressed. His later speech was long on rhetoric and short on detail, while Senators have urged him to use the power he already has to send men home.

It is impossible to overstate how devastating Obama’s indifference is to a desperate man. My clients live in a bubble. A concrete, razor-wired bubble, but one in which the tiniest scrap of information takes on enormous significance. Wild rumors of release – to Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait, anywhere – echo around the blocks for months, even years. For they have nothing else to sustain them.

I tried to explain to poor Nabil that in a way, President Obama lived in a bubble too. He must have forgotten all of you, I said, because a wall of White House bureaucrats shoved your suffering out of his sight, kept you at the bottom of his pile. Men in the White House wholike Greg Craig, who tried to keep Obama’s much-repeated promise to free you? Those men were edged out by Rahm Emanuel. Craig lost his job. Obama spent the majority of his first term in an echo chamber consisting mainly of people who insisted that political expediency demanded leaving my clients here to die.

Today, my task is to make my clients real to Barack Obama. The military makes this as difficult as possible, by robbing the men of their two greatest assets: their voices, and their faces. Two journalists at the base with me were furious because a haunting photo they took of a very hungry man was deleted by camp authorities. The ostensible reason for this was to protect his privacy – the real reason, of course, is that with the face of a suffering man comes empathy.

Much the same thing happened a few weeks ago, when the New York Times published an op-ed based on a telephone call between me and my client. Within hours I had journalists ringing saying "military sources" claimed I broke some rule. I sighed, and explain that a government censor was on a call, that we had done such things many times before, and that no rule had been violated. The only rule I broke was an unspoken one: Never Make the Prisoner Human.

How many more humans will have to die before Barack Obama takes personal responsibility for this prison? Stop blaming Congress. Enough excuses. My clients say they will start to eat if – and only if – cleared men start to go home. 

Cori Crider is Strategic Director at Reprieve. She is also an attorney for Reprieve's clients in Guantanamo

A view over Guantanamo Bay. Photograph: Getty Images

Cori Crider is Strategic Director at Reprieve. She is also an attorney for Reprieve's clients in Guantanamo.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.