Closing Time? The Shifting Politics of Guantánamo

The Buzz

Congress recently passed its 2014 defense authorization bill. In doing so, for the first time the legislative body voted to make it easier for President Obama to achieve his longtime goal of closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay. The bill lifts the restrictions on transferring prisoners to foreign countries, meaning that the administration can now begin to move the half of the current detainees (seventy-nine out of 158) who have already been cleared for transfer out of the prison. The legislation, however, does maintain the current restrictions on transferring Guantánamo detainees into the United States for trial or imprisonment.

How did this happen? In a lengthy Daily Beast piece in the week prior to the vote, Daniel Klaidman outlined how the politics of the issue had changed significantly over the past year, pointing to three broad factors. First, he writes, the political climate “had been steadily shifting away from concerns about national security” as the United States has wound down the wars of the past decade. Second, the Obama administration began to devote considerably more time and energy to the effort to close the prison, highlighting it in high-profile speeches in the spring and appointing special envoys at both the State and Defense Departments who would be tasked with advancing it.

Third, Klaidman notes that one particular argument began to have some sway over skeptics in Congress—namely, the cost of the prison. Adam Smith, a House Democrat, reviewed budget information from the Defense Department and discovered that at Guantánamo, the government was spending $2.7 million per detainee, per year, as opposed to the only $78,000 per year it would cost to keep prisoners at Supermax prisons within the United States. Smith told Klaidman that in an era of declining budgets, this line of argument “was the one thing that changed the debate.”

In some ways, this is part of a larger trend that we’ve seen in national-security debates over the past year. In July, following Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, an effort in the House of Representatives led by Representatives Justin Amash and John Conyers to outlaw the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata failed by only twelve votes. And in September, after President Obama announced that he would go to Congress to seek its approval for conducting military strikes against Syria, the opposition to this proposal in Congress and the public was unexpectedly widespread and intense. This contributed to the president’s decision to forgo the attack and instead pursue a diplomatic option to attempt to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. The recent Guantánamo vote fits this pattern in that it is another example where arguments that a given policy course is necessary for reasons of national security (whether detaining prisoners, collecting data or attacking another country) are now treated with a higher degree of skepticism than in the past. The straitened budget conditions naturally contribute to this mentality as well, even if the cost of any one of these policies is comparatively small in the scope of the overall defense or federal budget.

The reaction to the vote in Congress may also serve as an indicator of this trend. Predictably, civil-liberties groups have celebrated the result. Its opponents, meanwhile, have been relatively silent. This is a pretty significant shift from even just earlier this year. After President Obama announced in the spring that he was going to renew his effort to shutter the facility, leading congressional Republicans of both chambers swore their opposition to this goal. Now, a major step toward that end is being taken, and from a political point of view it appears to be mostly a nonissue.

If supporters of the effort to close Guantánamo do eventually succeed, it will be in part because this trend has continued, and this will probably be the model for how it happens. Congress will continually have to revisit the remaining restrictions on transferring detainees to U.S. soil. As time goes on—assuming that this pattern holds and barring an event like another major terrorist attack—the argument that bringing the remaining Guantánamo prisoners into the United States represents an unacceptable security threat may lose its currency. And more budget-conscious congressmen may continue to be persuaded by the fiscal argument mentioned above, seeing the facility as an unnecessary expense for a marginal or nonexistent security gain.

It is worth noting that the end of Guantánamo would not necessarily mean the end of indefinite detention—perhaps the defining and most controversial aspect of the prison. Indeed, under the administration’s own stated plans, forty-six of the prisoners there currently are deemed too dangerous to release, but also cannot be prosecuted due to a lack of admissible evidence. If all the restrictions were lifted, they would presumably be transferred into facilities within the United States, but still held indefinitely.

Nevertheless, this is a meaningful step by any standard. As Benjamin Wittes wrote at Lawfare, even those who support indefinite detention or keeping Guantánamo open shouldn’t want to see the U.S. government “holding people we don’t need or want to be holding.” In Wittes’s words, the vote in Congress represents “a big win for the Obama administration—and for common sense.” Yes, it does.

Image: Flickr/Medill DC. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsTerrorismSecurity RegionsCubaUnited States

Peter King's Ridiculous Assault On Rand Paul

Jacob Heilbrunn

Ronald Reagan said that the GOP's 11th commandment was, "Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican." If so, it's an injunction that's being increasingly violated. The Gipper would be astonished to see that Republicans seem to be devoting more energy to attacking each other than the opposition.

Few Republicans are attracting more ire from within the GOP's ranks than Sen. Rand Paul who appears to possess a special ability for getting under the skin of his Republican colleagues. First it was Senator John McCain referring to him and Ted Cruz as "wacko birds." Now Rep. Peter King, a vulgar demagogue who has held McCarthyite hearings on alleged Muslim radicalization in America and is starting a new political action committee called "American Leadership," has joined the fray. He announced on CNN that Paul's statement that top NSA official James Clapper did more damage to national security than Edward Snowden has was nothing less than "disgraceful."

Paul's statement was hyperbolic. But King's assault on Paul is not simply excessive. It is an attempt to silence debate. He declared,

For Sen. Paul to compare that patriot, Gen. Clapper, with someone like Snowden, who is a traitor, who has put American lives at risk, Sen. Paul should be ashamed of himself. It’s an absolute disgrace. It’s a disgrace to me, he disgraced his office and he owes Gen. Clapper an apology immediately.

Actually, he doesn't. Clapper essentially admitted he lied to Congress when he came up with the baroque explanation that he gave the "least untruthful" response to questions in earlier testimony. And King flatters himself when he says it is a disgrace to him personally. Anyway, Paul is scarcely alone in his (justified) skepticism about Clapper. Seven House Republicans are asking for a Justice Department investigation into Clapper's remarks. The Hill reports,

GOP Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.), James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.), Trent Franks (Ariz.), Blake Farenthold (Texas), Trey Gowdy (S.C.), Raúl Labrador (Idaho) and Ted Poe (Texas) said Clapper's `willful lie under oath' fuels distrust in the government and undermines the ability of Congress to do its job. "There are differences of opinion about the propriety of the NSA’s data collection programs," they wrote. `There can be no disagreement, however, on the basic premise that congressional witnesses must answer truthfully.'

They would seem to have a point. Government officials don't get to pick and choose about answering questions veraciously. In fact, they can be prosecuted for lying to Congress. Remember John Poindexter? Scooter Libby? Or have we now entered a new relativistic era in which even basic notions of right and wrong don't apply to officials from the executive branch?

What's really behind King's outrage are his ambitions to run for president and his desire to present the emerging realist wing of the GOP as isolationists. He wants to isolate it. In fact, King is quite explicit about this. He told CNN that the letter about Clapper is redolent of the worst traditions of the late 1930s, when isolationist sentiments percolated in America, preventing Franklin Roosevelt from taking an even firmer stand against the Third Reich. King said,

That comes from the isolationist wing of the party. These are people who are apologizing for America. To me, that is not the Republican tradition. That is not the tradition of Ronald Reagan. It’s the tradition of Charles Lindbergh and the radical, left-wing democrats of the 1960s.

Not exactly. At this point, there are really several Republican traditions, each of which is now vying for dominance. There is the rollback wing of the party, led by John Foster Dulles, which emerged in the 1950s. It fused with neoconservatism in the 1980s, which claimed credit for the collapse of communism. Then that triumphalist spirit led directly to Iraq. In response, a more realist wing has started to reemerge in the GOP that traces its roots to Dwight Eisenhower. No doubt Senator Paul has not offered a full-fledged view of his foreign policy stands. And there is no doubting that his father Ron is indeed an isolationist. But Rand has been careful to distinguish his own stands and views from his father's, explicitly stating that he is not an isolationist. Still, in the political debate that looms ahead of the GOP, these niceties, as Peter King's remarks indicate, are hardly likely to be observed. A brouhaha over foreign affairs is becoming an internal matter of dispute inside the GOP. Clapper is unlikely to be prosecuted, but King's remarks could prove to be the Fort Sumter of the Republican foreign policy debate.

TopicsThe Presidency

A Scholars' Boycott of Israel

Paul Pillar

As a matter of intent, justice, legality, and morality, the recent decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions is a righteous action. The problem that the association's decision (approved by two-thirds of its membership) addressed cannot be restated often enough, because although the nature of the problem should be obvious there are continuous efforts from other quarters to obscure it. The government of Israel, while paying lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, occupies indefinitely, and continues to colonize, land that Israel conquered in a war it initiated 46 years ago and is home to Palestinian Arabs, and in so doing is depriving Palestinians not only of self-determination but of most of their political and civil rights as well as keeping them in economic subjugation.

The situation is commonly described, of course, as a bilateral conflict in which there are political and security concerns on both sides, which there are. But Palestinian leaders and the community of Arab states long ago accepted the idea of peace based on a Palestinian state limited to the 22 percent of the British mandate of Palestine left in Arab hands after earlier warfare in the 1940s. The shape of such a peace has long been clear. Israel is the occupier. It is easily the most powerful state in the region. It is in control. The Israeli government could make such a settlement a reality within weeks if it decided to. It instead prefers to cling to conquered land rather than to make peace, and to continue the colonization that threatens to put a peace out of reach.

That a gesture is righteous is not, however, sufficient grounds for judging that it is wise, or maybe even that it represents justice if one takes a broader view beyond the immediate conflict. The ASA's move, besides being subjected to the usual chorus of calumny whenever there is any criticism of Israeli policy, raises several legitimate issues.

One issue concerns the targeting of academic institutions, which is probably where some of the more enlightened and liberal thinking occurs inside Israel. That might seem an odd channel for going against the illiberal thinking that is the real target. One response to this concern is to note that the ASA is a body of academics, so naturally academic institutions are the entities its members would normally deal with. It would be a meaningless gesture for the ASA to announce a boycott of, say, the Israeli Defense Forces, with which it presumably has no relationship anyway. The ASA also supports its position by noting the denial of rights to Palestinian scholars as well as the multiple relationships that Israeli universities have, such as through training and technological development, with the Israeli military that administers the occupation.

Another legitimate question is whether a boycott, which inherently involves a cutting off of contact and communication, is an appropriate way to aim for an objective in which there would be a full peace with plenty of contact and communication among all concerned, including Israel. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas appears to raise this concern when he says he favors limiting boycotts only to the products of Israeli settlements in occupied territory. “We don't ask anyone to boycott Israel itself,” says Abbas. “We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.” Abbas, however, may be showing the side of the Palestinian Authority that constitutes a Potemkin village of self-determination under the shadow of what is still Israeli occupation. On this question he certainly is not speaking for Palestinian civil society, which strongly supports the broader boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as a whole. In any case, the ASA's move does not affect the work of, or contacts with, individual Israeli scholars, and of course it does nothing to curtail governmental contacts.

A further question that can understandably be raised about the ASA's move is why it singles out Israel when the world is full of human rights violators. Saying, as one association member did, that one “has to start somewhere” does not quite cut it. The appropriate response starts with the fact that the members of this association are not just scholars of American studies; most of them are American scholars and American citizens. A huge piece of context for all of this is the critical role that the United States has played, through multiple administrations, in condoning the offensive Israeli behavior by providing diplomatic cover and many billions of no-strings-attached assistance. The United States is doing nothing of the sort for all those other human rights violators. Ideally what should be changed is the official policy; at a minimum, strings ought to be placed on assistance. But until that happens, U.S. citizens need to use what levers and gestures are available to them. Perhaps enough such gestures will start to change the political climate in the United States that supports the policies that condone the violations of human rights. Perhaps the gestures will chip away at the “standard trope of U.S. politics...that Israel is America's major ally in the Middle East,” as John Tirman of MIT puts it, when in fact “Israel's belligerent and persistent obstructionism is not the action of an ally.”

That gets to another response why Americans in particular are justified in making the kind of gesture the ASA made, which has to do with how Israel's occupation and its policies in the occupied territory significantly damage U.S. interests. Bruce Riedel powerfully and succinctly reviews why the unresolved Palestinian problem “is a national security threat to America. Indeed, American lives are being lost today because of the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The reasons for this are, “First, this conflict creates anger, frustration and humiliation that fuel the enemies that are killing Americans today. Second, this conflict weakens our allies and friends, the moderates in the Islamic world, who are trying to fight our enemies.” On the first of those points, other academic research has repeatedly shown how the continued Israeli occupation, and the U.S. condoning of it, fuels extremist violence of the al-Qaeda ilk against U.S. interests. The occupation is a topic on which considerations of justice and a realist's considerations of U.S. interests converge.

The BDS movement, and thus contributions to it such as the ASA resolution, have a chance to do some good on this issue even though boycotts might have little effect on the policies of some of those other prominent human rights violators, such as the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe or the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan. If Israel, as its leaders and defenders are always quick to assert, shares with the United States important liberal democratic values—although the occupation represents the most glaring respect in which Israel does not share those values, or at least does not act on them—then those leaders and defenders ought to respect an expression of opposition that is peaceful and that is made through the free choices of consumers and scholars.

The example of overthrowing the South African version of apartheid continues to offer lessons in this regard. The Economist, in its obituary on Nelson Mandela, observed:

Mr. Mandela made political mistakes. The decision to abandon non-violence lost the ANC some support abroad, put no real military pressure on the government and, most seriously, diverted the movement’s energies from the task of organization at home, which was essential if strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience were to be effective.

The ASA's boycott is on balance the right thing to do, although it is not a slam dunk. Some who see the underlying issues rather clearly, such as Tom Friedman, nonetheless criticize the move. Everyone who expresses views on this or any other step relevant to the Israeli occupation should strive to get away from the all-too-prevalent, no-shades-of-gray tendency to lump every comment into a “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” camp. That tendency is damaging because it encourages scurrilous responses such as indiscriminate playing of the anti-Semitism card, and because such labels fail to distinguish between fundamental Israeli interests and the policies of the current Israeli government. Careful, detailed attention to what is effective as well as what is just is in order.

Image: Flickr/Takver. CC BY-SA 2.0.

TopicsCivil SocietyDomestic PoliticsHuman RightsEthicsPublic OpinionSanctions RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territoriesSouth Africa

Is the American Dream Dying?

Jacob Heilbrunn

The great economic debate of the past couple years has been the Federal Reserve's attempts to prop up the economy as Congress has gone AWOL. Now, after priming the pump as much as possible, the Fed is offering a cautious vote of confidence in a recovering economy, declaring that the era of quantitive easing will begin to come to an end. Tapering is in. Tampering is out.

The markets are not swooning. Stocks were up on Wednesday as the Dow jumped nearly three hundred points. Instead, they have probably already priced in the move. Bonds remain strong. The dollar is relatively robust, though it has been dropping against the British pound.

But larger and more fundamental questions continue to loom over the country: Is the American dream coming to a close? Who's getting the benefits of the recovery? Can the political system recover from the polarization it's been experiencing?

In the Wall Street Journal, William Galston, who has been writing a column for the paper in recent months, offers a highly insightful look at the problems America faces. Galson notes that America really faces a crisis of confidence. Americans are not confident about many things. A recent Bloomberg survey, he notes, indicated that "individuals do not have an equal chance of getting ahead." His own organization, No Labels, has conducted a poll that indicates that only 38 percent of Americans think the country's best days are ahead of it: "Only 26% believe that the next generation of Americans will be better off than this generation and fully 62% believe the coming generation will be worse off."

These are not sentiments or numbers that can be easily dismissed. President Obama's response has been to focus on inequality without offering a satisfactory plan for how to ameliorate it. Simply further taxing the wealthy is not going to restore prosperity. It will inhibit it. At the same time, the congressional sequester is crimping growth. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that growth would be 1.5 percent higher this year absent the tax hikes demanded by Obama and the budget cuts insisted upon by the GOP.

What's more, warnings of the Federal Reserve's monetary easing policy (which is intended to counter the fiscal drag created by budget cuts) leading to higher inflation have proven false, at least so far. As the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, the major worry for the world's central banks is the threat, not of inflation, but its opposite—deflation. Neither America nor Europe wants to end up in the position of Japan, which has battled for over a decade to stymie falling prices and a listless economy.

It is Japan, not Greece, that may be the model that everyone should really fear. Both America and Europe, confronted with aging populations and increasingly onerous entitlement programs (Germany's Angela Merkel has backtracked, or at least wavered, on economic reforms, including lowering the retirement age from 65 to 63 for employees who have paid into social security programs for 45 years), face political choices in coming decades that no politician is even eager to think about facing. For now, a form of intergenerational theft is taking place, in which the elderly displace the young economically. Small wonder that confidence about the economic prospects of future generations is low.

Galston notes that a sense of malaise also prevails when it comes to America's status abroad. Polls, he says, depict a "worried, risk-averse people." This should hardly come as a surprise after the misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Washington expended great efforts to upend those societies, only to see both remain mired in tribal warfare.

Still, there are several reasons to suspect that even if America's best days are behind it—which is always subject to debate—better ones do loom. Galston himself says that we need leaders who "are able not just to artuclate a vision of a better future, but also to offer a credible strategy for reaching it in this ear of polarized politics." But perhaps the inherent strengths of the American economy will also play as big, if not even a bigger, role than any individual. The prospect of energy independence is one sign of a reviving economy. Technological advances could also play a key role. The biggest boost, however, would be if both political parties began to think harder about stimulating economic growth. Perhaps the very pessimism about America's future will stimulate the country to embark upon a new era of prosperity. There's no reason, after all, not to start dreaming about it.

Image: Flickr/Ivan McClellan. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsEconomicsIdeology RegionsUnited States

Edward Snowden's Sickening Love Letter to Brazil

The Buzz

When he first entered the public eye, National Security Agency defector Edward Snowden presented himself as an American patriot. In his first public interview, he argued that he intends no harm to the United States and worries that people “won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.” And in a dramatic live interview on the Guardian, he told a questioner “this country is worth dying for.” He further asserted that he’d made a careful effort to protect information that was gathered in the national interest, saying “I did not reveal any US operations against legitimate military targets.” And Snowden’s most reasonable defenders fleshed out the argument that he was acting out of love for his country, saying that oversight of the intelligence community was failing, that the American public would not support such extensive surveillance if it knew what was going on, that our spies are doing much more than merely monitoring terrorists, that Snowden’s actions were a necessary evil or even that Snowden was truly patriotic.

Yet Snowden and his revelations drifted away from that approach, as more information about spying on foreign targets emerged. Snowden’s drift has now taken him to a further shore: Brazil’s. In “an open letter to the people of Brazil,” Snowden offered his services to the Brazilian senate’s “investigations of suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens.” And Snowden tacitly asked for something in return: “Until a country grants permanent political asylum, the US government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak.”

In other words, Snowden has offered up secrets and insights into American intelligence collection to a foreign government, in return for favors from that government. Legally, that’s espionage. Morally, it’s treason. For a Snowden, out to save America’s constitution and its citizens’ civil liberties, altruistically sacrificing himself for their benefit, would have no cause to reveal espionage against foreigners. Such espionage doesn’t harm Americans. Indeed, its revelation has clearly harmed American interests, as it has forced foreign heads of state to denounce American actions publicly and adopt adverse stances towards the United States. A patriotic Snowden wouldn’t have accepted that cost, even if he stood to benefit personally (say, by receiving asylum).

But what’s truly remarkable about the open letter to the Brazilians is the degree to which he’s willing to grovel before them. Previously and unsuccessfully marketed as an American patriot, Snowden has now rebranded himself as a Brazilian one. His letter is full of fulsome references to people and places in Brazil: “When someone in Florianopolis visits a website, the NSA keeps a record of when it happened and what you did there. If a mother in Porto Alegre calls her son to wish him luck on his university exam, NSA can keep that call log for five years or more.” And he warns Brazil’s people of American deceit: “American Senators tell us that Brazil should not worry, because this is not "surveillance," it's "data collection." They say it is done to keep you safe. They’re wrong.” He tells Brazil what he thinks is the real motive of America’s actions: “These programs were never about terrorism: they're about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They're about power.” He’s cribbing the rhetoric of the Latin American nationalist left—he even complains about espionage against one of their sacred cows, the main national oil company. Hugo Chavez is looking up at him and smiling.

Of course, Snowden isn’t a Brazilian patriot. He is a Brazilian sycophant. He gushes that he was “particularly inspir[ed]” by Brazil’s firm reaction to his revelations. Yeah, right. The letter is the end, not the beginning, of a multimonth attempt by Snowden and his allies to endear him to Brazil’s people. Brazil has had unusual prominence in his revelations. On July 6, the first story came out, concerning a data collection program that had gathered billions of pieces of data in Brazil. Information on snooping in other Latin American countries came out on July 9. (Snowden was trapped in the transit zone of a Russian airport at the time, and was reaching out to Latin American countries for asylum. Let’s be charitable and assume this was an utter coincidence.) When Russia granted Snowden temporary asylum a few weeks later, the Brazil revelations stopped—for a time. But September 1 and 2 unveiled spying targeting Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. September 2 and 8 saw news on U.S. spying on Brazilian oil giant Petrobras. October 7 revealed espionage by the U.S. and Canada against Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy. And now Snowden’s open letter bows and scrapes.

It’s a smart tactical move by this smarmy traitor. He knows that Brazil’s government is not eager to take him in. His presence would be a permanent thorn in the side of U.S.-Brazilian relations, while his value as a Brazilian intelligence asset is questionable. By taking his case directly to the Brazilian public, he’s attempting to force the government to reconsider his request. A man who said his country is worth dying for, who proclaimed the freedom and dignity of individuals against the state, now kneels before a foreign sovereign and offers his obeisance.

Image: Flickr/Chris Evans. CC BY 2.0.

TopicsIntelligenceSecurity RegionsBrazil