Guantanamo and presidential priorities

Now that it's acknowledged the camp will not be closed even by 2013, the White House's modus operandi becomes clear

Published June 26, 2010 12:27PM (EDT)

(updated below)

The headline from this morning's New York Times article by Charlie Savage says it all -- not just about this issue but about the administration generally:

Savage writes that it is "unlikely that President Obama will fulfill his promise to close it before his term ends in 2013"; quotes Sen. Carl Levin as saying that "the odds are that it will still be open" by the next presidential inauguration; and describes how Sen. Lindsey Graham -- who is actually trying to close the camp -- is deeply frustrated with the White House's refusal to spend time or energy to do so, quoting him as saying that the effort is "on life support and it's unlikely to close any time soon."  So that appears to be a consensus:  Guantanamo -- the closing of which was one of Obama's central campaign promises -- will still be open as of 2013, by which point many of the detainees will have been imprisoned for more than a decade without charges of any kind and without any real prospect for either due process or release, at least four of those years under a President who was elected on a commitment to close that camp and restore the rule of law.

None of this is news to anyone even casually watching what's been going on, but there are several aspects of this article which are so noteworthy for illustrating how this administration works.  Let's begin with this:  Obama officials -- cowardly hiding behind anonymity as usual -- raise the typical excuse which they and their defenders perpetually invoke for their "failures" to fulfill their campaign positions:  it's all Congress' fault ("They blame Congress for failing to execute that endgame," Savage writes).  It's true that Congress has enacted measures to impede the closing of Guantanamo, and threatened to enact others, but the Obama administration's plan was never so much to close Guantanamo as to simply re-locate it to Thompson, Illinois (GTMO North), in the process retaining one of its key, defining features -- indefinite, due-process-free detention -- that made it such a menace in the first place (that's the attribute that led Candidate Obama to scorn it as a "legal black hole"). 

The only meaningful way to "close Guantanamo" is to release the scores of detainees whom the administration knows are innocent and then try the rest in a real court (as Pakistan just did with Americans they accused of Terrorism).  Imprisoning only those people whom you convict of crimes is a terribly radical, purist, Far Leftist concept, I know -- the Fifth Amendment is so very un-Pragmatic and pre-9/11 -- and that is something the administration therefore refused from the start even to consider.

But more important -- and this goes to the heart of the debate I had all week with Obama defenders over his alleged inability to influence Congress -- the primary reason why Congress has acted to impede the closing of Guantanamo is because the Obama White House has allowed it to, and even encouraged it to do so with its complete silence and inaction.  I was accused by various Obama defenders all last week of being politically ignorant for arguing that Obama possesses substantial means of leverage to influence Congress to do what he wants, and that often, when the excuse is made that it's not Obama's fault because he can't control Congress, the reality is that Congress is doing what it does because the White House is content with or even supportive of that, while pretending in public to lament it.  I provided numerous examples proving that was true, none of which was answered, but one need not believe me and my starry-eyed political ignorance.  Just listen to Carl Levin, who sort of knows how the process works given that he's been in the Senate for about 400 years, explaining the real reason Guantanamo will not close:

"There is a lot of inertia" against closing the prison, "and the administration is not putting a lot of energy behind their position that I can see," said Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee . . . . .

Mr. Levin portrayed the administration as unwilling to make a serious effort to exert its influence, contrasting its muted response to legislative hurdles to closing Guantánamo with "very vocal" threats to veto financing for a fighter jet engine it opposes.

Last year, for example, the administration stood aside as lawmakers restricted the transfer of detainees into the United States except for prosecution. And its response was silence several weeks ago, Mr. Levin said, as the House and Senate Armed Services Committees voted to block money for renovating the Illinois prison to accommodate detainees, and to restrict transfers from Guantánamo to other countries -- including, in the Senate version, a bar on Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. About 130 of the 181 detainees are from those countries.

"They are not really putting their shoulder to the wheel on this issue," Mr. Levin said of White House officials. "It's pretty dormant in terms of their public positions."

That -- what Levin just said there -- is the heart of the critique of the Obama administration which its defenders steadfastly refuse to address, opting instead to beat the same strawman over and over no matter how many times it's pointed out what they're doing.  After The American Prospect's Mori Dinauer completely mischaracterized my argument by claiming that I "believe that the president can bend Congress to his will," I wrote:  "Why is it that no matter how many times you say 'I am not arguing and do not believe X,' someone will come along and say: 'can you believe that he's arguing X?' How much clearer could I have made it over the course of three posts that I do not believe that the President can bend Congress to his will'?" 

Yesterday, Matt Yglesias reasonably enough requested that "people who’ve been on the Glenn Greenwald side of the Great Presidential Power Debate" look at what happened with the failure of the Senate to pass the administration-supported tax extender bill, but then argued this episode negates "the Glenn Greenwald side of the Great Presidential Power Debate" because it demonstrates that "just because Barack Obama wants congress to do something doesn’t mean it happens."  It's particularly disappointing to see Matt resort to this complete strawman and mischaracterization of the views of Obama critics, because he knows that's not the claim.   I had a Twitter discussion with Matt on this topic and told him:  "The strawman is that Obama is all-powerful and can get any legislation he wants passed - NOBODY claims that."  And Matt independently knows that "the Glenn Greenwald side of the Great Presidential Power Debate" has nothing to do with the claim that "just because Barack Obama wants congress to do something [it] mean[s] it happens," because he read the posts this week where I explicitly and repeatedly renounced that view:

As I've acknowledged from the start, the President does have some constraints in the area of domestic policy and will not always be able to move Congress to do what he wants. . . . None of this is to say that the President is omnipotent. It's certainly possible that he could truly devote himself to inducing the Congress to do something he wants, but fail.  The fact that the President fails to get something he wants is not proof that he failed to try.

Instead, the issue has been and still is exactly what Carl Levin just explained.  The administration has substantial leverage to influence what Congress does, but they use it only on those issues that are actually important to them.  And in those White House actions, one finds their actual priorities.  The White House applied vast pressure on Congress to get what it wanted by having a war-funding bill enacted without conditions, demanding progressive provisions be stripped out of the financial reform bill, preventing drug re-importation from being enacted in order to please the pharmaceutical industry, negotiating the public option away with industry interests, and (to their credit) blocking funding for obsolete fighter jets.  They exerted great influence over Congress because those were important priorities for Obama.  By contrast, they do nothing on a whole slew of issues which they claim they support and which were at heart of the Obama campaign -- such as closing Guantanamo -- thus conveying to Democrats in Congress that they do not really care about such measures (or even oppose them) despite their public assurances to their base that they continue to support them.  As I wrote:

The complaints have never been that the Obama White House failed to force Congress to enact progressive legislation it claimed it wanted, but rather, that they never really tried using the substantial leverage and influence they have, thus illustrating that they never really wanted it in the first place.

That's exactly what Levin just said.  Matt says that the White House can't "engage in a maximum, 100 percent push for each item on the Obama agenda" and "you can’t just be going nuclear thirty times a year."  That's true enough.  But look at the issues where they do "go nuclear"and contrast it with the ones where (at best) they do nothing.  As one of Matt's commenters writes:

I actually support Obama and think Greenwald's basically wrong, but this isn't a great argument. If this president isn't willing to go all in for healthcare, climate change, gay rights, or immigration [GG:  or closing Guantanamo], just what IS he willing to push for?

The answer to that is clear:  war funding, killing the public option, preventing drug re-importation, and stripping out FinReg provisions which Wall Street hates most.  Beyond Levin's complaints, Savage's article provides a perfect illustration for how this works.  Just marvel at this passage:

In any case, one senior official said, even if the administration concludes that it will never close the prison, it cannot acknowledge that because it would revive Guantánamo as America's image in the Muslim world.

"Guantánamo is a negative symbol, but it is much diminished because we are seen as trying to close it," the official said.  "Closing Guantánamo is good, but fighting to close Guantánamo is O.K.  Admitting you failed would be the worst."

That is so vintage Obama administration:  we're not going to do the things we said we would, but we're going to keep pretending that we will and claim we want to in order to keep our rubes devoted and believing.  That deceit works with many Democrats, but it does not seem to be working in the Muslim world, where people are far less politically faithful and gullible and want to see actual actions, not pretty words, and thus are growing increasingly disenchanted with both the U.S. and Obama.  The reality is that closing Guantanamo has been discarded because of the Obama administration's general embrace of the Bush/Cheney Terrorism template; if you are going to retain a system of due-process-free indefinite detentions, then closing Guantanamo makes little sense.  One could almost respect the administration more if they admitted that -- as John Brennan came close to doing yesterday -- rather than pretending that it is trying but is just oh-so-tragically and helplessly thwarted by Congress.

* * * * *

Related to all of this:  see Eric Lichtblau's excellent article on how Obama officials have been meeting with lobbyists outside the White House in order to avoid having to disclose these meetings pursuant to Obama's much-touted "transparency" policies.


UPDATE:  Speaking of the financial reform bill, this, too, is a revealing headline, from AP:

Among the big winners:

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. rose 3.5 percent, while JPMorgan Chase & Co. gained 3.7 percent. Bank of America rose 2.7 percent and Citigroup Inc. rose 4.2 percent.

Regional banks also scored big gains. Suntrust Banks Inc. rose 4.7 percent and Synovus Financial Corp. gained 5.3 percent.

Apparently, "investors" celebrated the fact that the most stringent regulations did not end up in the final bill, though I really can't imagine why any rational person would have ever thought they would.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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