Gitmo protesters outside the White House in January.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Obama's Irrelevant, Outmoded Case Against Guantanamo

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Watching President Barack Obama make his end-of-term push Tuesday morning to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, my thoughts turned to terrorists. I tried to imagine what two hardened jihadis must think about the president's plan. "Are we still on for the car bombing at the embassy?" "I don't know. The infidel leader says he wants to close the prison in Cuba. Let's wait to see what Congress does."

It sounds absurd. It is absurd. And yet, it gets to one of the main arguments Obama has made for closing Guantanamo since taking office in 2009. He said Tuesday that the prison's existence is "counterproductive to our fight against terrorists, because they use it as propaganda in their efforts to recruit." The president is not alone in this view. In 2008, when Obama was running for the White House, no less an authority than General David Petraeus said he favored closing Guantanamo because it was a recruitment tool. George W. Bush and John McCain have said as much themselves.

This is true in the narrowest sense. For years, the Taliban, al Qaeda and other jihadis have featured Guantanamo in propaganda. When James Foley was beheaded in 2014, he was wearing an orange jumpsuit, the same color as the jumpsuits worn by early Guantanamo detainees.

But in a more important sense, Guantanamo doesn't really matter in the battle for the hearts and minds of would-be terrorists. Charlie Winter, a senior research associate at Georgia State University's initiative on transcultural conflict and violence, and an expert in jihadi propaganda, told me Tuesday that Guantanamo is a part of the general message about the abuse and unlawful detention of Muslim prisoners.

But Winter stressed that Guantanamo is "one of many things held up by radical Islamists as evidence of the anti-Muslim conspiracy." For the Islamic State in particular, a bigger propaganda tool has been portraying the U.S. and Iran as allies in tormenting Syria's Sunni Muslims. Other jihadis have featured U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan in recruitment propaganda. There is also the U.S. support for Israel and Saudi Arabia.

None of which means that Obama should cancel the Iran nuclear deal, suspend aid to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and end the drone war. The enemy gets a vote on whether there is war or peace, but it doesn't get a vote on strategy.

So why then does Obama insist on closing Guantanamo? It's not that the prison is counterproductive. Rather, the president has said it "is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law." This is not really a strategic argument. It's a moral one. Obama wants to close Guantanamo because he thinks it's an example of how his predecessor exceeded the rule of law in prosecuting the war against jihadis.

But this argument too is disingenuous. It's true that Obama has winnowed the pool of Guantanamo detainees to 91 and he plans to transfer 35 of these prisoners to third countries. But for those remaining, Obama does not propose an end to their indefinite detention -- which, let's face it, is what troubles their supporters in the Muslim world. Rather he plans to indefinitely detain these prisoners at a new facility inside the United States, where they will face a modified military tribunal. To do this, Obama would have to persuade Congress to change the law that would prohibit such transfers.

All of this is too much for the American Civil Liberties Union. In a statement Tuesday, the group's executive director, Anthony Romero, praised Obama's efforts to close Guantanamo. But he said, "his decision to preserve the Bush-created military commissions is a mistake."  He added, "the president’s continuing embrace of indefinite detention without charge or trial will tarnish his legacy.”

Romero should criticize Obama. He has a fundamental disagreement with the president on whether America should treat global jihadis as enemy fighters or as suspects for law enforcement. Back in 2008, Obama was on Romero's side. Even during his presidency he has spoken of his desire to get America off of a war footing, particularly after he authorized the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

But in the end, al Qaeda and its offspring have scuttled Obama's plans to end the war against them. To the president's credit, he has readjusted. His successor will inherit the global war on terror that Obama tried to end. And that global war is likely to fuel jihadi propaganda and recruitment efforts, regardless of where the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo are indefinitely detained.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net