Obama must shift focus off Guantánamo
The new White House should use the president's credibility abroad, while he still has it, to focus attention on the underlying questions related to detention and terrorism prevention.
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Come Jan. 2010, if Guantánamo remains open, and this looks increasingly likely, the president's credibility among Congress, the American people, and the international community would be weakened.
Even worse, the legal and policy questions surrounding how to hold detainees legitimately in the war on Al Qaeda and its allies – a formulation the president uses intentionally – would remain muddled. The international focus would remain on the closure of Guantánamo.
The president's commitment to close Guantánamo by Jan. 22 without fully understanding both the dangerousness of most of the remaining detainees and the legal and diplomatic complications of detention policies surrounding Guantánamo was a mistake.
Failing to have a plan and to work with Congress to transfer the remaining detainees further hamstrung the administration's efforts.
But it's not too late to reshape the nature of the domestic and international debate about detention of Al Qaeda-related terrorists. The Bush administration tried but lacked the credibility to redirect the world's focus.
Instead of focusing attention on closing Guantánamo, the new White House should use the president's credibility abroad to focus attention on the underlying legal and policy questions related to detention and terrorism prevention, for which Guantánamo is only a symptom.
There remains no consensus about how to hold suspected terrorists and insurgents in a seemingly endless global conflict, in which the theaters of conflict range from recognized war zones and ungoverned havens to city centers and suburban neighborhoods.
Neither the laws of war nor criminal legal principles fit the challenges presented by an amorphous transnational enemy wearing no uniform and intending to inspire a religiously motivated movement to commit catastrophic atrocities.
This is a hybrid conflict still in need of legal and policy innovation.
In May, President Obama formally announced a preventive detention system, admitting that there are some individuals too dangerous to release. This is an important decision that reflects the reality of the threats the president rightly perceives and the inadequacies of the current legal systems to deal with such threats. It is also a decision that disappoints the left, which expected that Obama would rely wholly on criminal trials to hold terrorist suspects or let them go free.
The president should now explain this decision to the world and reshape the nature of the Guantánamo debate.