Closing Guantanamo is not now and never has been an urgent matter. President Obama was wrong to make a fetish out of this particular detention facility in 2008 — as was his opponent, John McCain. Obama was wrong to stake any part of his presidency on its closure in the first days of his presidency. And he is wrong now to pretend that Guantanamo’s closure would effect any profound change in detention policy.
What is an urgent matter and has been since the dawn of Obama’s presidency is the rationalization of U.S. detention policy. This project overlaps in significant respects with the project of closing Guantanamo. But it is not the same project, and the administration’s confusion of the two has significantly impaired the rationalization project in the name of what amounts to a bumper sticker.
It is important to understand what closing Guantanamo means in the Obama political lexicon. It does not mean ending law of war–based detention. The Obama administration means to continue holding — at a minimum — nearly 50 detainees until the termination of hostilities with al Qaeda and the Taliban. (The actual number is almost certainly higher than that.) Even in the president’s recent speech, in which he promised the end of the war, he didn’t specify a time frame for that. The military will either hold detainees at Guantanamo, or it will hold them somewhere else. So what is at stake with Guantanamo’s closure is not the substance of detention policy, merely its venue.
Indeed, the insistence on closing Guantanamo — and the consequent refusal to bring new detainees there — actually creates an important problem: Where to hold newly captured detainees and where to put certain detainees currently held in Afghanistan as the United States disengages from combat operations in that country.
On the other hand, several of the key steps the Obama administration has taken — and wishes to take — in support of its Guantanamo closure policy constitute important elements of any effort to rationalize U.S. detention policy. And conversely, the steps that Congress has taken to frustrate the Guantanamo closure are profoundly disruptive to that effort.