Why Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo is all talk

Obama’s Gitmo closure plan has about as much chance of succeeding as his earlier attempts.

The exterior of Camp Delta is seen at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay [REUTERS]
The exterior of Camp Delta is seen at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay [REUTERS]

After repeatedly delaying its plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, the Obama administration has finally released a nine-page strategy to the US Congress on how it intends to close down the prison. 

The effort, perhaps one of the most important objectives President Barack Obama hopes to accomplish in his last 11 months in office, remains a divisive subject not only among the US political leadership but also among the American people at large.

This is why the administration, including the White House, the Defense Department, and the State Department took a considerable amount of time to hammer out the details: they recognise that, with less than a full year left in Obama’s term, this is their last chance in making this policy a success.

Witness – Guantanamo’s Child – Omar Khadr

“For many years, it’s been clear that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our national security – it undermines it,” Obama said during a press conference revealing his plan.

“It’s counterproductive to our fight against terrorists … It drains military resources … [and] Guantanamo harms our partnerships with allies and other countries whose cooperation we need against terrorism.”

Closing up shop

If the announcement on February 23 was a surprise, how the White House intends to close up shop in Guantanamo surely is not. 

The ingredients to a successful closure of Gitmo have been known for quite some time, and Obama did not disappoint.

ALSO READ: Obama readies for showdown on Guantanamo closure

Detainees who have been cleared by the US government for release to a third country will have their transfers accelerated; the Parole Review Board, responsible for determining which detainee is suitable for transfer, will be working in a more expeditious manner; prisoners charged by the US will continue to have their cases prosecuted; and prisoners that the US determines are too dangerous to release will be transferred to another facility in the United States.

Unfortunately for the administration, its Gitmo closure plan has about as much chance of succeeding as Obama's earlier attempts.


Unfortunately for the administration, its Gitmo closure plan has about as much chance of succeeding as Obama’s earlier attempts.

The fact remains that, in a heated election year where matters of national security remain a concern for many Americans, a Republican-led Congress has no incentive to provide the White House with the cooperation needed to remove detainees to the US mainland.

Indeed, Republicans in Congress are already gearing up for a long fight that could potentially reach the US court system.

Pat Roberts, Tim Scott, and Cory Gardner, three senators who represent states that would most likely host Guantanamo detainees inside the US, are firmly opposed to any relocation of the prisoners in their constituencies.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has said that any effort by the administration to unilaterally close the Guantanamo facility without congressional approval would be a direct violation of the US law. 

Congressional Republicans are already preparing for a lawsuit in the event that Obama does decide to take that route – hiring expensive attorneys in Washington that could quickly file an injunction that would stop any executive authority in its tracks.

Limited options

Are there any options that the administration can pursue that would provide the White House with an opening to meet a major campaign promise? Outside of ignoring congressional restrictions and using executive power to begin transferring detainees into US prisons, their choices are quite limited.

The entrance to Camp 5 and Camp 6 at the US military's Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba [AP]
The entrance to Camp 5 and Camp 6 at the US military’s Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba [AP]

The United States could try to get other countries around the world to prosecute these detainees on terrorism-related charges, but there is no guarantee that nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan – both of whom have legal structures that are not necessarily the most fair or transparent in the world – would agree to help facilitate more terrorists on to their soil.

Nor is there much indication that an Afghan government, forced on to the ropes by a renewed Taliban insurgency, would want to host several dozen additional terrorists.  

The most likely scenario is the most depressing for President Obama. And that is this: once he submits his Guantanamo closure policy to Congress, the Republican-led House and Senate will reject it as dangerous to US national security at a time when international terrorism is at an all time high.

ALSO READ: Hurdles ahead as Obama bids to shut Guantanamo prison

Top Republicans argue that Obama does not have the authority under the Constitution to transfer prisoners on his own. And the White House is left with the unpalatable choice between doing nothing or gearing up for a constitutional crisis.

Part of Obama’s appeal when he first ran for president in 2008 was his call to get away from the policies of his predecessor. On Guantanamo, he has learned that saying one thing on the campaign trail and doing another in the Oval Office are completely different ventures.

Daniel R DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat, Inc, a global geopolitical advisory firm, and a non-resident researcher at the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.