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A Good Thing for Guantánamo

January 18, 2010
New York Times


The coincidental overlap of three recent events--the thwarted Christmas Day airliner attack, the return of six Yemeni detainees from Guantánamo, and two airstrikes targeting Al Qaeda in Yemen--has put a spotlight on Guantánamo transfers even more than usual. As a result, President Obama stopped sending detainees to Yemen. Coming just weeks prior to his self-imposed deadline for closing the detention facility, this move seems to create only problems for U.S. officials. In actuality, recent developments give the United States new opportunities to solve the Guantánamo problem in a way that has lasting, long-term benefits.

First and foremost, the Obama administration now has breathing room on Guantánamo closure efforts. The Jan. 22 deadline President Obama set his first day in office was a public diplomacy windfall with U.S. allies, and represented a key piece of his strategy for improving America's relations with the Muslim world.

It also served to jump start efforts within the U.S. government that are often hamstrung by bureaucracy and internal politics; one year to shutter the detention facility was a tall order from the start, but it helped U.S. policymakers needing the weight of the Oval Office to move things along.

However, it created an unrealistic timeline that, at points, prioritized momentum over long-term strategy. U.S. officials struggling with the Guantánamo problem now have a much-needed respite - time to reassess both the timeline and approach being taken.

This has the added benefit of solving a looming public diplomacy crisis. Unfortunately, creating such an unattainable goal set up the president for international embarrassment when he fails to achieve the most well-known objective of his first year in office. Recent events dampen this backlash - both for the president and, more importantly, the United States overall. No one will question why Guantánamo remains open.

Developments with the Yemeni detainees also refocus attention on transfer efforts that helped reduce the population at Guantánamo to under 200, a far cry from the 750 held there over the past eight years.

Having spent two years coordinating detainee transfers for the Defense Department, I know this was no small task. Each of the 552 transfers to date was a serious headache for U.S. policymakers - whether due to the security concerns for releasing a dangerous individual, the stress it placed on U.S. diplomatic relations, or the chronic worry that Al Qaeda would use the entire effort as a propaganda tool. Having thus far transferred the "lower-threat" detainees, only "higher-threat" detainees remain, making the problem much more difficult. Add to this the latest reports that one out of five former detainees returns to terrorist activity. At some point, the United States will be left with a detainee population too risky to release. Recent events raise questions, for the American public and the international community, as to whether we'll reach that point sooner than expected.

The past few weeks have forced Congress to re-evaluate its position on other options for Guantánamo detainees, namely whether they should be brought to the United States. If we're approaching a day when transferring detainees is too dangerous, at least until the security situation in their home country improves or Al Qaeda is defeated, continued detention in U.S. custody may be best medium-term option - for the American public and the world. But it is difficult to balance this reality with the notion that Guantánamo damages U.S. national security interests and is a "recruiting tool" for Al Qaeda. Less than 200 detainees remain at Guantánamo and, in so far as Congress wants to help solve this problem, sending them to Illinois may be the only option. Now's the chance to avoid politicizing the issue and come to terms with a practical solution.

The United States is stuck with the Yemeni detainees for now and has no chance of closing the detention facility any time soon. Recent events remind the public, Congress, and the international community, just how difficult the Guantánamo-problem is. But they should also help us find a tenable, long-term solution for the detainees remaining there.

Marisa L. Porges is an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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