The Conversation

By Michael Ondaatje

US president Barack Obama has renewed his promise to close the controversial US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

The prison camp is currently the scene of a hunger strike by numerous inmates, some of whom are being force fed to keep them alive.

Describing Guantanamo as a waste of taxpayers’ money that has damaged American foreign policy, Obama said he would try again to persuade Congress that “this is something that’s not in the best interests of the American people".

He put his case simply: a “recruitment tool for terrorists” that “hurts us in terms of our international standing” is “not necessary to keep America safe". Obama’s logic may well be sound, but shutting down Guantanamo will be far from simple.

The president will need to clear some steep political hurdles.

The single greatest hurdle to razing the notorious prison camp is the lack of agreement in the US about where to put the 166 remaining detainees.

Transferring them to a US prison and dealing with them in US courts is presently not an option. In 2009 Congress passed legislation prohibiting the federal government from funding trials for Guantanamo detainees. The legislation also prohibits housing these individuals in a prison on US soil. Transferring the detainees to a foreign country’s prison system is similarly problematic, since there are real concerns that some countries may simply release them into the community without considering possible security risks.

Even the 89 detainees the US government believes can be safely integrated back into the world continue to face uncertain futures at Guantanamo Bay. Congress requires the arguably impossible guarantee that these detainees won’t ever pose a danger to the United States. It is unlikely than any senior government official would be prepared to offer such a guarantee.

There are, of course, real terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, who, given the opportunity, would take up – or, in some cases, return to – fighting against the United States. Detaining men such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, is legitimate so long as it is done pursuant to the laws of war.

The problem with Guantanamo was that it was established as a law-free zone, a place where terror suspects could be detained and interrogated without due process and the most basic human rights. The prison quickly became an international embarrassment for the Bush administration, and has left an indelible stain on a nation still deeply affected by the events of 9/11. Even Bush himself conceded, towards the end of his presidency, that the US would be better off without Guantanamo.

The hunger strike is a vivid reminder that the Guantanamo issue is far from resolved. Despite improvements in conditions at the prison in recent years – torture is no longer sanctioned and detainees now have access to lawyers – Guantanamo is, in many respects, a deeper problem today than in 2009, when Obama took office. Congress is the principal culprit here.

In consigning the remaining detainees to legal limbo, and preventing them from being moved anywhere, it effectively ensured Guantanamo would remain one of the most counterproductive elements of US national security policy.

Confronted with the intransigence of Congress in 2009, the White House backed down, believing it unwise for the President to invest political capital in closing Guantanamo – especially when polls suggested that a significant majority of Americans favoured keeping the prison open. Since then, Obama has been largely silent on the issue. His decision to set aside the moral quandary of Guantanamo for political reasons angered civil libertarians, but at the heart of the decision was a realistic calculation that this was a battle he would almost certainly lose.

Some commentators have suggested the hunger strike may be a game-changer. It has certainly awakened Obama from his strategic four-year slumber on Guantanamo. But the President will have to be more than just awake if he is to deliver on his failed first-term promise to shut down the prison, which continues to provoke so much anti-American hostility around the world.

He will have to lobby Congress to change the legislation preventing the federal government from trying detainees or transferring them to US soil. If that fails, persuading Congress to loosen their unreasonable restrictions for releasing detainees to foreign countries would be another option.

However he chooses to proceed, Obama will have his work cut out for him. With the Boston terrorist attack still fresh in people’s minds, and polarisation in Washington as deep as ever, a national security compromise between President and Congress over Guantanamo Bay appears highly unlikely.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.