Sunday, January 11, 2009

Waffling or Just Filling in the Details: Obama's Statements on Guantanamo Bay Raise Questions

Recent statements by Obama which suggest he will take a cautious approach to closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility have led some observers to accuse him of backpedaling on the subject. During the Democratic primaries and in the general election campaign, progressives frequently cited to Obama's promise to close Guantanamo Bay in order to portray him as the candidate who would do the most to repair the image of the United States in world affairs.

Obama's Campaign Rhetoric on Guantanamo Bay
During his campaign, Obama promised that he would make closing the facility a priority of his administration. The following language taken from a brochure on BarackObama.Com details his position on the subject:

Guantanamo has become a recruiting tool for our enemies. The legal framework behind Guantanamo has failed completely, resulting in only one conviction. President Bush’s own Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, wants to close it. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell wants to close it. The first step to reclaiming America’s standing in the world has to be closing this facility. As president, Barack Obama will close the detention facility at Guantanamo. He will reject the Military Commissions Act, which allowed the U.S. to circumvent Geneva Conventions in the handling of detainees. He will develop a fair and thorough process based on the Uniform Code of Military Justice to distinguish between those prisoners who should be prosecuted for their crimes, those who can’t be prosecuted but who can be held in a manner consistent with the laws of war, and those who should be released or transferred to their home countries.
Obama made similar statements in a speech on foreign policy that he delivered in August 2007:
I also will reject a legal framework that does not work. There has been only one conviction at Guantanamo. It was for a guilty plea on material support for terrorism. The sentence was 9 months. There has not been one conviction of a terrorist act. I have faith in America's courts, and I have faith in our JAGs. As President, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.
Progressives Banked on Obama to Close Guantanamo Bay
As they did on many issues, progressives promoted Obama as the better candidate on this issue, even though both he and Hillary Clinton promised to shut down the detention facility (see Clinton statement). In January 2008 -- one week prior to Super Tuesday -- several prominent lawyers who represent detainees at Guantanamo Bay wrote an open letter endorsing Obama.

The letter does not mention Clinton by name, but it distinguishes Obama from other "some politicians" who "are all talk and no action." It also states that "America needs a President who will not triangulate this issue" and that Obama would certainly keep his word "because he truly feels these issues in his bones."

Although it speaks in code, the letter clearly attacks Clinton. During the Democratic primaries, the Left derided Clinton as someone who was insincere and untrustworthy and as someone who, rather than feeling issues "in her bones," simply takes positions to get elected. Also, "triangulation" is synonymous with leftist hatred of the Clintons.

Obama's Most Recent Statements on Guantanamo Bay
During a recent interview on ABC's This Week, Obama took a cautionary approach that differs from his campaign statements which describe closing the facility as "the first step" towards repairing the nation's image in the international community. Obama refused to commit to closing facility during his first 100 days in office. Instead, his comments suggest a more drawn out process of winding down operations. And rather than portraying the facility as a complete failure, he suggests that that the interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, lawful or otherwise, may have actually helped the United States identify and secure terrorists. Here is Obama's full statement:

It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize and we are going to get it done but part of the challenge that you have is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom who may be very dangerous who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication. And some of the evidence against them may be tainted even though it's true. And so how to balance creating a process that adheres to rule of law, habeas corpus, basic principles of Anglo American legal system, by doing it in a way that doesn't result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up. . . .

That's a challenge. I think it's going to take some time and our legal teams are working in consultation with our national security apparatus as we speak to help design exactly what we need to do. But I don't want to be ambiguous about this. We are going to close Guantanamo and we are going to make sure that the procedures we set up are ones that abide by our constitution. That is not only the right thing to do but it actually has to be part of our broader national security strategy because we will send a message to the world that we are serious about our values.
Waffling or Just Providing the Details?
So, is Obama waffling as some progressives argue, or is he simply providing the details concerning a broad promise to close down the facility? I believe that both things are at play. Obama's campaign statements about Guantanamo Bay do not describe a complicated process that will take into consideration a plethora of factors that make shutting it down more difficult than most people realize. Instead, they make closing the facility the "first step" towards repairing the nation's international reputation.

Also, while Obama's earlier statements emphasize the need to adhere to the Geneva Convention and to rely upon federal courts to try terrorists, he now indicates that he will need to balance his reform with the fact that "tainted evidence" nonetheless indicates the guilt of some detainees. But if Obama wishes to prosecute alleged terrorists in federal courts, then the use of tainted evidence will prove difficult (especially if by "tainted," Obama means the evidence was obtained through coercion).

Although Obama's recent statements with respect to Guantanamo Bay are in fact much more guarded and nuanced than what he said during his presidential campaign, progressives must accept responsibility for uncritically assessing his political rhetoric. Progressives tried to turn Obama's campaign message of change into a leftist social movement. They believed that his success meant the country had become more liberal and that Obama would have a tremendous amount of deference to implement his campaign promises.

Progressives constructed Obama as the "change they had been waiting for," rather than someone who would deliver centrist and triangulating politics. But, as I have argued before, an election is not a social movement. Although social movements use elections in order to place their messages in public discourse and to secure political support for their agendas, elections alone do not create or even necessarily indicate the possibility of social change.

Regardless of whether Clinton or Obama won, progressive social movements would have to engage in activism to secure the implementation of liberal reform. Apparently, some progressives have only recently begun to understand this reality. The use of progressive symbolism by Obama's campaign led many leftists to believe that he alone could bring progressive reform. But once the poetry and emotion of a campaign subsides, governing truly happens in prose. For failing to accept this earlier, progressives must blame themselves.

Related Readings on Dissenting Justice:

If Obama Emulates Lincoln, Will Progressives Follow Abolitionists and Radical Republicans?

2008 Is Not 1964: Why Liberal Mania and Conservative Panic Are Nothing But Melodrama

Chicken Little Politics: Moderate Obama Causes Progressive Panic

Progressives Awaken from Obama-Vegetative State

Governing In Prose: Obama's Cabinet Picks Defy Campaign Narrative That Emphasized "Hope," "Change," and "Washington-Outsider" Status


Ken Ballweg said...

And perhaps the people you label "progressive" need to accept that they will never be able to get a clear electoral majority, and there will always be the need to keep fighting the fight.

I prefer to think of myself as "radical" rather than "progressive" which is really the current code word for Liberal; which, in turn, has been so tainted by the right that we are so damn uncomfortable using it?

There is no clear political victory available for the "logic of the Left" through a major political candidate. Take the concessions then go out and push for more and then more and then more. Such as it ever was.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Ken - I use "progressive" not because the right has maligned "liberal," but because the people I see who call themselves liberals seem more moderate if anything. They embrace symbolic change, but do not advocate and would probably reject changes that implicated their own comfort zone.

I completely agree with your analysis of the kind of change that leftists can get from a "major political candidate." I guess that's why I have not yet been misty eyed by the election of the first black president. Although symbols are important, they do not feed, clothe, or provide doctors for people. Nor do they end violence or discrimination. Besides, I have enough symbols to sustain me.....

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