With a year to go in the presidency of George W. Bush, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave an interview to the BBC in which, inevitably, the issue of the detention center at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay arose. Do you have plans, BBC correspondent Jonathan Beale asked her, to close it?
"Of course we would like to see Guantanamo close," she replied. "There's only one problem: What are you going to do with the bad people who are there? Release them again on an unsuspecting population? I don't think so."
This answer seemed simplistic -- obviously, there is a vast middle ground between releasing suspected Islamic terrorists outright and keeping them at Guantanamo without trial forever -- but Rice is smart, and her answer was a diplomatic way of appealing for help from the international community.
"One of the things that would help a lot is... if we could get some of those countries to take them back-and take them with constraints that ensure that they are not going to be a danger to society again," Rice added. "So we need help in closing Guantanamo. We're not going to do it at the expense and safety of Americans and other citizens."
Turns out that not much has changed since that December 2007 interview, which is strange, considering that the United States held a presidential election in the meantime. President Obama vowed during his campaign to shut the infamous detention center at the place the U.S. Marines call "Gitmo." He was on his way to fulfilling that promise until this month, when timorous House and Senate Democrats balked.
What frightened them enough to abandon the president of their own party, you ask? Was it the break-up of a dangerous terrorist sleeper cell? A jailbreak at Gitmo? Another terrorist attack on U.S. shores? Nope: The catalyst for the Dems' strategic retreat was a fear-mongering Republican-sponsored ad, a publicity stunt of a House bill called the Keep Terrorists out of America Act, and a handful of floor speeches from Senate Republicans.
"The American people want to keep the terrorists at Guantanamo out of their neighborhoods and off of the battlefield," intoned Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in arguing to keep Gitmo running. "It's the perfect place for them. I don't think there's a community in America that's going to be interested in taking them."
When the GOP produced a scary video ad to the same effect--I saw one on YouTube, but not on the actual BoobTube--congressional Democrats quickly began distancing themselves from the leader of their own party. Why they did this isn't quite clear. We just had an election last November, and the Democrats won everything. They have a mandate, and this is supposed to be the season for governing, not politicking. How naïve of me! On May 4, the House Appropriations Committee dropped a $50 million administration request to begin closing the detention center and transferring prisoners elsewhere. The Senate followed suit Wednesday on a rather stunning 90-6 vote.
Echoing McConnell's talking point, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid thundered that his party "will never allow terrorists to be released in the United States."
Well, then. It might be argued that, with friends like Reid, Obama doesn't need enemies. One thing that is inarguable, however, is that not even the ACLU is talking about "releasing" terrorists into neighborhoods, or anywhere else. True, the Obama administration has been vague about exactly where the estimated 50-100 hardcore cases--the detainees whom no other country would take--would be incarcerated. But under what theory of the separation of powers should the commander-in-chief have to tell Congress the prospective location of each and every jail cell for combatants plucked from the field of battle?
Yes, the Democrats are petrified of being portrayed, once again, as not being tough enough on foreign policy, but doesn't that seem a strange way to demonstrate machismo: cowering in the face of political attack ads of dubious logic?
"Never underestimate the ability of Democrats to go to any lengths to demonstrate that they are not soft on terrorism or (insufficiently supportive) of the military," Colorado-based Democratic political consultant Rick Ridder told me Wednesday afternoon. Ridder sounded pretty disgusted with his party's leadership in Congress and he believes they are missing the big picture, which is how much closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility would improve the U.S. image abroad.
"Europeans often wonder why generally reasonable Democrats in the United States always seem to summon their inner Jack Bauer whenever Republicans amplify the threat of terrorism, communism, and foreign extremism," Ridder said in an email. His view was echoed publicly on Wednesday by very few Democrats in Washington. A rare exception was Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
"Guantanamo is used by al-Qaeda as a symbol of American abuse of Muslims and is fanning the flames of anti-Americanism around the world," noted Feinstein, who was one of the six voting in support of the president. Perhaps Feinstein's level-headedness stems from the fact that California has been able to incarcerate a frightening array of murderers, ranging from Charles Manson to Sirhan Sirhan, without mishap.
The 75-year-old senator also noted that the "Supermax" federal prison in rural Colorado was built with just such considerations in mind. "It isn't in a neighborhood," she said. Such prisons, "are reserved for the worst of the worst," she said, going on to mention an array of convicted Islamic terrorists already incarcerated in the United States (without a peep of Republican protest), including the 1993 World Trade Center bombers. "We have maximum security prisons in California eminently capable of holding these people as well, and from which people--trust me--do not escape."
On Thursday, Obama is to give a talk on foreign policy, which White House officials say will tackle Guantanamo Bay. We are told that the president will try to lower the temperature of the discourse. Good luck with that: This debate really isn't about national security. It's about politics, and very short-sighted politics at that. The real question about the American facility on Guantanamo Bay is barely being discussed by our elected leaders.
Ultimately, U.S. elected officials will have to decide, and sooner rather than later, what should be done with the military base on Guantanamo itself. The United States certainly has a strong historic claim to it: The American presence there predates Cuba's existence as a country and, in fact, is partially responsible for Cuban independence: The U.S. Marines landed there in June 1898 during the Spanish-American War, wrested the island from Spain, used Guantanamo as a staging area for the invasion of Puerto Rico--and never really left.
An accord signed in 1903 essentially gave the United States title to the strategic, 45-square-mile base, and even Raul Castro has characterized it as neutral ground--for now. In the 21st century, however, Gitmo has been tainted as a symbol. So what should be done with it? Simply abandoning the place and allowing it to be a tourist attraction that doubles as a source of anti-American propaganda isn't terribly palatable, but Americans are famous for ingenuity, and there is no dearth of creative ideas for how to use the Guantanamo facilities in the future.
Raul Castro has suggested it be the site of direct talks between Cuba's leaders and Obama, something no president has done in 50 years. One natural result of such negotiations, in his mind, would be the return of the military base to Cuba, which the United States has done in places ranging from the Philippines to Puerto Rico -- not to mention in Panama, where we turned over a canal we built. Some Americans agree. Julia E. Sweig, an expert on U.S.-Latin America relations at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that returning the land to the Cubans would send a welcome signal from Washington to the rest of the capitals in the Western Hemisphere.
That's one idea. Here's another: A Bowdoin College biology professor named Nathaniel Wheelwright envisions an international research center that tackles environmental issues of the Western Hemisphere. Others have floated even more ambitious visions for Guantanamo Bay. My own favorite proposal comes from George Washington University faculty member Peter J. Hotez, an expert on tropical diseases that afflict poor nations and poor people throughout the Americas.
After Condi Rice's comments in December 2007, Professor Hotez began circulating his idea on how to "stimulate a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy." His vision is to establish a biomedical institute at Gitmo that is dedicated to wiping out the scourges of tropical diseases, ranging from hookworm to dengue fever.
"Reinventing Gitmo to address our hemisphere's most pressing neglected health problems could help change America's reputation and legacy in the region," he wrote. "By transforming Gitmo from a detainee facility to a center for research on the diseases of poverty, the U.S. would...ultimately make things better for the next generation of all Americans."
First, we need to find a place to house the most irredeemable of the Gitmo prisoners. It's perhaps whimsical, but, like Feinstein, I come from San Francisco and I have a place in mind: It is easily patrolled and quite safe. It has a colorful history as a prison and it held Al Capone, so it can hold these birds. I'm speaking of Alcatraz, a.k.a. The Rock, which sits forlornly in San Francisco Bay. It was once a military prison and is now owned by the National Park Service, so the federal government already has title to the land.
If former San Francisco Mayor Feinstein would go for it, how could the likes of Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell complain? And if Nancy Pelosi, who represents the "City by the Bay" in the House went along, wouldn't that take her off the hook?