Wednesday, July 08, 2009

What Obama Should Have Done

Perhaps I give President Obama too much credit here, but I believe that he does genuinely want to close the facility and Guantanamo Bay. He just is not will to expend any actual political capital on it. (In fact, is he willing to spend any political capital on anything at all? The stimulus, maybe). The result, of course, is that if he does not care enough to spend any political capital, nothing will get done.

In the end, the only way to get such a thing done is to just go and do it. What seems radical and outrageous may be unthinkable until someone actually does it. George Bush understood this principle well. Anonymous Liberal explains:

Had Bush gone to Congress in October of 2001 and asked for the authority to torture detainees, conduct warrantless surveillance of all international calls, and detain people indefinitely without process at Guantanamo Bay, I don't think he would have had much luck.

The perverse truth is that by engaging in these activities unilaterally (and in some cases illegally), the Bush admininistration was ultimately able to secure much greater statutory authority than it otherwise could have. By simply claiming this power for itself and acting accordingly, Bush created a situation where--in the wake of adverse court rulings--Congress was faced with the choice of stopping activities the Bush administration claimed had been crucial in preventing terror attacks (such as "enhanced interrogation," processless detention, and warrantless surveillance) or retroactively legalizing these activities. . . .

On top of that, the simple fact that the Bush administration had been engaged in these activities for years served to normalize such activities in the minds of many Americans and many politicians, a reality which helped make their eventual statutory ratification possible. . . . By acting first and letting the chips fall where they may, the Bush administration was able to dramatically shift the baseline of the debate. Instead of a debate over how to tweak FISA, we found ourselves in a debate over whether FISA was unconstitutional and should be gutted completely. Instead of a debate over what detention conditions were adequate for detainees, we found ourselves in a debate over what forms of torture the CIA should be authorized to continue using against them.
The Obama Administration could have done exactly the same thing. To some extent, it has. Consider, for instance, what happened when Obama proposed to move some terrorists from GTMO to the United States for trial. The Republican Party (and many Democratic Senators) collectively freaked out. They unleashed an insane storm of panic that terrorists held, even in maximum security prisons, had some sort of super human powers and could escape and terrorize the country. So what did Obama do? He moved a terrorist to a New York prison for trial (not scheduled until next year). And what was the response? Effectively, none. And, it seems a safe assumption, once one terrorist in a maximum security prison turns out not to have super powers after all, the transfer of others for trial will seem a lot less scary.

Good for him! Now, if he had only been willing to spend a little political capital on the issue, the same approach would have worked for releasing suspects who have been cleared into the US.

Start with one or more GTMO detainees who have been determined not to be a threat. Perhaps one would start with the Uighurs. A media blitz would be in order. (We know Obama knows how to use the bully pulpit. So why isn't he using it?) Portray them as innocent victims of the evil Communist Chinese. Emphasize that the Chinese have been manipulating us to do their dirty work for them. Demonstrate that the FBI, the Pentagon and the federal courts have all determined the Uighurs to pose no threat whatever if released. Show the Uighurs released into Albania. They have adjusted to life perfectly well there and not engaged in any terrorism. Explain that the rest of the world is too afraid of China to accept the Uighurs and only we, the US, are big enough and strong enough to stand up to the Chinese. Meet in private with the Virginia delegation to Congress. Show them all the evidence there is no danger whatever. Promise that the FBI will keep an eye on them. Offer Virginia extra juicy pork in the stimulus and support for whatever piece of legislation is especially dear to Virginian hearts.

Or maybe releasing 17 terrorism suspects into Virginia is too much. Maybe it is better to release just one or two into Dearborn, Michigan, home of the largest Muslim community in the US. Senator Carl Levin would probably be more open to the possibility than anyone from the Virgina delegation. Besides, Michigan is in so much economic trouble and so dependent on federal largesse, it is easy to throw your weight around. But release someone.

Six months later announce a dramatic follow up. Nothing has happened! The releasees are slowly adjusting and show no sign of interest in terrorism. Have a slightly less dramatic follow up a year later. Still nothing has happened! By now if we are lucky, other countries have taken the other detainees cleared for release. (Our refusal to take in any has been a major obstacle). If we are not so lucky, releasing more into the US will be a whole lot less scary.

Granted, this approach will generate a lot of pushback at the beginning. Republicans will become hysterical. So will many Democrats, just to be on the safe side. Your ratings in the polls will fall. Talk radio and Fox News will collectively freak out. But then again, hysteria requires a lot of energy and just isn't that sustainable. And Fox New and talk radio will always be freaking out about something. Done with enough publicity of these men's innocence and harmlessness (remember, whoever seizes the initiative controls the narrative), it won't be as suicidal as it appears. And as time goes by and nothing happens, the panic will subside. As with George Bush and the practice of torture, a radical, unthinkable action will cease to be radical and unthinkable because it has been done.

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