Credibility Gap

If Obama can’t deliver on closing Gitmo, why should foreign governments trust his promises on free trade and climate change?

At first glance, the resignation of White House counsel Greg Craig would appear to be a domestic U.S. political issue. Yet, as the ramifications of his departure are assessed, the Obama administration will have to deal with the negative conclusions that may be drawn around the world.

Craig was the point man in charge of implementing into policy several of the promises made by candidate Barack Obama, including closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. However, as the New York Times reported Friday, Mr. Craig took considerable criticism for those decisions and for not doing more to build consensus within the administration or prepare the political ground in Congress. The closure of Guantanamo in the first year of Mr. Obama's presidency is now almost certain not to happen.

What happened, as it appears to my outside observer's eyes, is that the political challenges of translating Obama's vision into action became too acute, especially the growing chorus of Congressional voices protesting that Guantanamo detainees not be transferred "into my back yard." The political shop inside the White House, already anxious about the president's health-care initiative, wasn't going to risk alienating a single vote on the Hill.

In one sense, no one should have been surprised. Candidates routinely make promises that presidents fail to implement when confronted with political realities. Already, the president has incurred the anger of the Armenian community over the genocide issue, not wishing to complicate an already-fragile U.S.-Turkey relationship.

But in another sense, this is not politics as usual. This is not akin to candidate Clinton making statements about Haitian refugees or Bosnians during the 1992 campaign and then failing to enact those sentiments into policy. The president campaigned on Guantanamo as a centerpiece issue, especially in terms of reasserting American moral and political leadership within the global community of nations. As the BBC noted, President "Obama has repeatedly promised to close the Guantanamo Bay prison," and this was a promise heard round the world.

Think back to January 22, 2009, when President Obama signed the executive order (and effectively gave Greg Craig his marching orders). He made it one of the first signature acts of his administration, a way to signal that he was serious about change. Yes, the legal language of the order contains all the escape clauses necessary to avoid actually having to meet any deadline (everything has to be "consistent" with the national-security interests of the United States, after all). But when he affixed his signature, he did not state that it was his "hope" that the facility would be closed-he said that the Guantanamo prison "will be closed no later than one year from now."

What foreign diplomats accredited in Washington and what foreign ministries around the world are now trying to determine is the extent to which the president means to back up rhetoric with action. If the president finds closing a U.S.-run detention facility to be too difficult, what happens with other contentious issues? As the president travels in Asia, a subtext to his meetings there are about his administration's ability to steer free-trade agreements through Congress. Will these be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency? What sort of compromises can the president really make in terms of climate-change standards? The Russians, having heard yet another president promise to repeal the Jackson-Vanik trade amendment, aren't holding their breath that the Obama team will actually spend any of its capital up on the Hill to get this done.

There is no longer a bright dividing line between U.S. "domestic" and "foreign" policies. Washington may see the departure of Mr. Craig as an internal issue-but other governments can't help but be concerned for what this portends in terms of the administration's ability to deliver on any deals and compromises it reaches.

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.