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.