In the title of a recent piece at The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald asked, “What Excuse Remains for Obama’s Failure to Close Gitmo?” Greenwald makes the argument that, given the Obama administration’s willingness to bypass Congress – and the law – by releasing five Taliban prisoners in exchange for American POW Sgt. Bowe Berghdal, the president’s line about being unable to close the globally despised detention center without congressional assent has been rendered worthless.
Logically, Greenwald is obviously right. If the Obama administration asserts the authority to ignore the statute requiring it provide thirty days’ notice to Congress before releasing detainees, as it evidently does, then the long-standing excuse about its hands being tied on this issue may be dismissed as pure political posturing. This shouldn’t surprise anyone.
For years, people opposed to the continued existence of the prison, which is an international scandal, have genuinely wondered how it can possibly remain open. Surely, US officials understand how injurious it’s been to America’s reputation, and we have heard for years about how it’s been used as a recruitment tool for extremists. There is one component of the ongoing Gitmo saga that’s rarely discussed, though, and it might illuminate one reason why the president, or anyone else in power for that matter, has never had the stomach to make this a front-and-center political issue: public opinion.
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As it happens, Gallup just conducted a poll asking Americans about their thoughts on policy relating to Guantanamo Bay, and the results are rather striking. An astonishing 66 percent of Americans opined that the United States should not “close this prison and move some of the prisoners to U.S. prisons.” That is the highest figure Gallup has recorded since first asking this question in July of 2007, when only 53 percent of Americans believed this. Just 29 percent of Americans want the facility closed and the prisoners either released or transported to the US.
Republicans, unsurprisingly, oppose closing Gitmo by a margin of 84 percent to 13 percent. What is rather troubling, though, is that majority support for the prison holds firm even among Democrats (54 percent of whom now say they oppose shutting it down). It’s quite revealing to note how Democrats have moved on this issue. In 2009, after Obama was sworn in as president, and when his opposition to Gitmo was often celebrated by liberals and progressives, 53 percent of Democrats told Pew that they supported closing the prison; that number has now dropped to 41 percent.
It would be difficult to find a clearer example of Democrats eschewing substance and alleged principles when they are no longer politically useful. At this point, talking about Gitmo is simply not helpful for Democrats, because it might reflect poorly on Obama in some way. But back at the height of Obama-mania, in 2008 and 2009, if you talked to a liberal about Gitmo, you would walk away with the impression that the prison represented a truly unconscionable stain on our national character, one that required urgent action. Five years later, nothing has changed fundamentally, and Democratic support for the prison is at an all-time high. This is shameful. So while Greenwald’s piece taunts Obama supporters for their gymnastics in defending him over failing to close Gitmo, it turns out they don’t even want to close Gitmo in the first place; or at least a solid majority of them don’t.
None of this is to absolve from blame either the president or leaders of both parties in Congress (the latter, in particular, have taken political cowardice to new levels on this issue). But it is to say that there should be no mystery about why people in power seemingly lack the will to pursue the closing of Gitmo with any kind of vigor. Elementary political analysis should make it clear why this is the case. When 66 percent of the population is horribly wrong on an issue, only politicians of impressive moral backbone will still do the right thing, and our leaders, up to and including Obama himself, are simply not up to the task. This is especially true on this particular issue, which is so ripe for rabid demagoguery from professional fearmongers like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has threatened impeachment if Obama dares to release any more detainees.
H.L. Mencken once said that “public opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob’s fear. It is piped into central factories, and there it is flavored and colored, and put into cans.” When it comes to the unspeakable horror that is the prison at Guantanamo, his words ring true. We can, and should, call out Obama and Congress for their utter spinelessness whenever they deserve it, and they certainly deserve it in this case. But whether it’s from conservatives’ wildly irrational fear and paranoia, or liberals’ simple indifference and political laziness, Americans are overwhelmingly on the wrong side of history here. There are 149 people still being held in cages down there, and ending this disturbing chapter of our history swiftly and humanely seems quite unlikely as long as we, the people, refuse to help turn the page.