March 28, 2008

Guantanamo To Close?

After the American Century

One of the worst mistakes of the Bush government has been to create the special prison at Guantamo Bay in Cuba. The men held there have not been charged with specific crimes, and could not be kept in detention for more than a few days if on American soil. That is because the Constitution gives all those arrested the right to know what charges are being made against them. The US Courts also have always upheld the right to a legal defense, the right know the evidentiary basis used by the prosecurtion, the right to call witnesses for the defense, and the right to cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution. None of these fundamental rights have been available at Guantanamo, and its mere existence has given the US a credibility problem. How can the US claim to represent democracy, and to want to encourgage other nations to adopt democracy, if it does not play by the rules of democracy?

Putting the detainees off-shore and denying them rights was a serious blot on the US's national reputation. But making matters worse, the Bush Government chose to lock them up on Cuba. That placement reminded the whole world, especially Latin America, of the US seizure of Cuba after the Spanish-American War in 1898. That little war was supposed to lead to independence for Cuba. Something else happened instead, and real independence for Cuba only came with Castro's revolution. In short, putting the illegal prisons on a base in Cuba reminded every Latin American that the US has often been something of a bully in the Caribbean. Teddy Roosevelt was thinking of that region when he declared that his policy was to "speak softly but carry a big stick." Locating the base in Cuba was a gift to the Left all over Latin America. It particularly hurt our credibility in nations such as Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia.

Worst of all, the whole conduct of the Bush Administration with regard to these prisoners has distrcated attention from the serious crimes some of them surely committed. I do not doubt that some - though probably by no means all - of the detainees are terrorists. But the Bush policy made them into victims!

This morning's news carried the story that an impressive FIVE former Secretaries of Sate are now calling for the Guantanamo Prison to be closed down. The bi-partisan group includes Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powel. This is a welcome development, signaling the widespread rejection of much of the Bush-Cheney policy. These are the most experienced people in American foreign policy, and their unusual bi-partisan statement should be enough to close this sorry chapter. In a sense, they are only seeing the hand-writing on the wall, because the electorate has already spoken. John McCain, who himself suffered as a prison of war in Vietnam, would close it. And both Clinton and Obama would close it. The only question is how quickly it can be done.

As a sidelight on this issue, a little story. About two months ago a Danish journalist called me to talk about Guantanamo. As is often the case with Danish journalists covering some aspect of the US, she was by no means a specialist on the United States. I seriously doubt she could pass the exam in my introductory American history course. But she had fixed opinions about the US which were precisely of the sort that the existence of Guantanamo reinforced. I told her for 15 minutes, in as many ways as I could think of, that Guantanamo Bay prisons would not survive very long in the next presidency, that they were an illegal embarrasment, that they no longer even served an intelligible purpose, and that a new leader would hardly want to be saddled with this Bush mistake. But she simply would not listen. She, like millions of others around the world, saw in those orange-clad prisoners, shuffling in chains, the "true" American policy toward the rest of the world. Since I did not agree with her, my interview was not used in her story. That is one of many instances where Danish journalists imposed their oversimplified world view on their readers. Guantanamo was made-to-order for such people, and it will take a generation of far better leadership in Washington to undo the public relations damage.

Unfortunately, there is no way to undo the terrible damage done to those prisoners held illegally without charge who in fact were not guilty. They have lost precious years of their lives, and as long as their relatives remember, the United States will be a bitter name in their mouths. When Guantanamo finally closes, it will live on in memory as another Bush disaster. He has been such a poor president that Richard Nixon begins to look sensible, moderate, and statesmanlike, even if he had to insist he was not a crook. You know things are bad when the most disgraced president in US history begins to look better.