It’s about Politics, Not Values

WikiLeaks documents have exposed what goes on in America’s Guantanamo prison camp. This chapter should have ended long ago, but the realpolitik demands tribute from Barack Obama.

It was not only a symbolic act, it was an early sign of how the newly elected U.S. president envisioned his much-promised “change.” His signing of an order to close the Guantanamo prison camp on the first day after his inauguration was eagerly jumped on by the world’s media.

He meant to put an end to the days when suspected terrorists could be arbitrarily incarcerated, denied access to the courts and where the use of torture was considered an acceptable intelligence gathering tool. Surrounded by former generals, Obama proudly and confidently announced that after a swift investigation, the remaining 245 prisoners at Guantanamo would either be released, returned to their homelands or subjected to the normal U.S. civilian justice system.

The intention was twofold: The international community, and particularly the United States, would recognize that human and civil rights, as well as values like the rule of law, would be honored by the oldest and most steadfast Western democracies even in times of heightened security.

Two years after this pompous announcement, reality has caught up with the president, and his limits, along with his weaknesses, have been exposed, as has the opportunism that was camouflaged as his “ability to compromise” for so long. The WikiLeaks revelations concerning the Guantanamo prison system are less spectacular than what was advertised. The fact that many of those incarcerated were either innocent or picked up on the scantiest of evidence was just as well known as the fact that torture was employed in the course of interrogations.

It’s also common knowledge that Washington has worked closely with the “interrogation specialists” of nations like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria and Tunisia (and probably still does) in order to get better results. Even the fact that some of those released from Guantanamo have (again) joined terrorist organizations doesn’t surprise insiders.

On the other hand, it’s far more interesting to see how Obama and his administration have reacted to these revelations. The White House press secretary was displeased by them because they rekindled a debate that the president would rather avoid.

In parts of the Arab world, the United States must endure the accusations that it follows a double standard. It reacts to Libyan human rights abuses with air strikes and, with ever-increasing vehemence, criticizes Syria’s President Assad for his treatment of those protesting his rule, going so far as to threaten increased sanctions. Yet it tolerates its own unconstitutional behavior at Guantanamo.

Domestic Political Constraints

Domestically, the president is taking fire from all sides of the political spectrum. While liberals are becoming increasingly disappointed with Obama, the conservatives are gleefully rubbing their hands in anticipation of yet another issue to use against him in the coming elections. That’s why Obama’s actions concerning Guantanamo must be analyzed first and foremost from the standpoint of domestic politics.

Obama basically has two options. He can placate the liberal wing of his party by doing what he promised early on and actually close Guantanamo and put terrorists like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, suspected 9/11 mastermind, on trial in civil court.

The fact that he did not choose this approach became apparent at the beginning of April, on the dame day he announced his intention to run for reelection. That’s when he announced that contrary to his promise to try Mohammed in civilian court, the suspected terrorist would face a military tribunal at Guantanamo.

Thus, Obama did a complete about-face within two years, thereby fulfilling the wishes of the Republican majority in the House that had vehemently opposed doing away with the military tribunals. Mitt Romney, prospective Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012, smugly commented that this was just further proof of Obama’s lack of conviction.

Future Deals

This shows that with his latest shift, Obama practices realpolitik not only with foreign policy. His main focus is next year’s presidential election and a working relationship with the Republican House of Representatives upon whom his domestic policies are dependent. He’s not prepared to sacrifice those goals to his opponents for the sake of some terrorist’s supposed rights. Whoever doesn’t grasp that doesn’t really understand Barack Obama.

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