Watching President Barack Obama make his end-of-term push Tuesdayto close the Guantanamo Bay prison, I tried to imagine what two 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 is absurd. But it gets to one of the main arguments Obama has made for closing Guantanamo. He said Tuesday that the prison is “counterproductive to our fight against terrorists, because they use it as propaganda in their efforts to recruit.” In 2008, General David Petraeus said the same thing. George W. Bush and John McCain have said as much themselves.
This is true in the narrowest sense. For years, the Taliban, al-Qaida and other jihadis have featured Guantanamo in propaganda.
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 and 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.
So why then does Obama insist on closing Guantanamo? It’s not because 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.” Obama wants to close Guantanamo because he thinks his predecessor exceeded the rule of law.
But this argument too is disingenuous. Obama has winnowed the pool of Guantanamo detainees to 91 and plans to transfer 35 of them to third countries. But for those remaining, Obama does not propose an end to their indefinite detention. 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 has a disagreement with the president on whether America should treat global jihadis as enemy fighters or as suspects for law enforcement. In 2008, Obama was on Romero’s side. Even during his presidency he has spoken of his desire to get the U.S. off of a war footing.
But in the end, al-Qaida 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.
Eli Lake writes for Bloomberg View.