President Obama’s Last, Best Chance to Close Guantanamo
Obama needs to stick to his veto guns, hurry up and offer his plan to close Guantanamo.
Congress’s budget deal passed last week brings into focus a drama that has plagued the Obama presidency: the fate of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
When President Barack Obama vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, he did so in large part over Guantanamo’s provisions, which, in the words of the president, “specifically impeded our ability to close Guantanamo in a way that I have repeatedly argued is counterproductive to our efforts to defeat terrorism around the world.” The president was talking about provisions in the NDAA that make it more difficult to transfer detainees overseas, and completely block the transfer of detainees to the United States—which would effectively thwart the administration’s efforts to close Guantanamo before the president leaves office.
In the new, post-veto version of the NDAA, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., hasn’t changed a letter in the onerous Guantanamo provisions because he believes the administration will accept them or be unable to muster the votes in Congress to sustain the president’s veto on Guantanamo. The president needs to prove Thornberry wrong.
First, the president should reiterate he will not sign any bill that prevents him from closing Guantanamo. Thornberry has said that by signing the NDAA the president would simply be signing into law the same restrictions on Guantanamo that he has signed in prior NDAAs. That’s false. This year’s NDAA includes the most comprehensive set of restrictions and reporting requirements on Guantanamo that has ever been passed by Congress. The president should make clear to Thornberry and others in Congress seeking to block Guantanamo’s closure that they are putting the NDAA at risk by doing so.
Second, the White House needs to forcefully make the case to Congress and the American people for why Guantanamo should be closed now. Many forget that it was actually President George W. Bush—not Obama—that first pushed to close Guantanamo, arguing that “the detention facility had become a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.” Many of our nation’s top military advisors agree.
Part of the reason that Thornberry thinks that he can use the NDAA to block the president from closing Guantanamo is because he believes there are not enough members in Congress that will vote to sustain the president’s veto over Guantanamo. But the president only needs one-third of the House or Senate to sustain his veto; the support from Congress will be there if he treats Guantanamo as seriously as he treated other foreign policy issues like the Iran deal and Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
Third, the president needs to deliver to Congress a plan to close Guantanamo. Close observers know that the administration has in fact had a plan to close Guantanamo for years, but it’s time to bring all the elements of that plan into a single, detailed document and submit it to key leaders in Congress. Both Thornberry and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., have said they would be willing to consider changes to the NDAA provisions to allow Guantanamo to be closed if the administration provides a plan, and McCain has gone further to say that he’d try to sell the plan to his Republican colleagues. While it’s irresponsible for Congress to block Guantanamo’s closure under any circumstances, the administration’s failure to deliver a plan has become a perennial, unaddressed excuse for congressional malfeasance. But McCain has insisted he won’t lift a finger until Obama’s plan is delivered.
With just over a year left in office, Obama’s odds for closing Guantanamo are dwindling fast. But the job can still be done with the right focus, commitment, and strategy, if the president and his team show up to play.