On the morning of May 23, 2013, our still young, but now greying, President Obama delivered what he hoped would be “a change speech”.
The speech was delivered to National Defense University, at Fort McNair in Washington DC. Reuters began its report on the speech:
President Barack Obama on Thursday (May 23) shifted the United States away from a “boundless global war on terror,” restricting deadly drone strikes abroad and signaling that America’s long struggle against al Qaeda will one day end.
In a major policy speech, Obama narrowed the scope of the U.S. targeted-killing campaign against al Qaeda and its allies and took new steps toward closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison – controversial elements of the U.S. counterterrorism fight that have drawn condemnation at home and abroad.
The speech dealt with a larger policy of the Obama administration, a pledge to narrow the “scope” of the targeted-killing drone campaign which Obama inherited and which he has shown little sign of wanting to give up. His progressive critics believe it is time Obama did more than narrow the “scope” of the drone program. They want it ended.
Obama also dealt with a more specific action, closing the US military prison at Guantanamo, Cuba. Obama has promised to close Guantanamo during his campaign for president. He failed to do so in his first term.
Reluctant to criticize specific actions of his presidential predecessors, Obama missed an opportunity to appropriately lay the blame for the existence of the Guantanamo prison squarely at the feet of President George W. Bush.
How are we to understand this moment in history? We may start by thinking of an earlier moment in our history, captured by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in a poem entitled, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.
A remarkable teacher in my small Georgia grade school taught me history in those uncertain days between the Great Depression and World War II. She did not teach dates; she taught poetry.
Based on what I retained from those early classes, what she embedded in my consciousness are snatches of poems that gave me a sense of the importance of history. Some of them remain with me to this day.
The adult writer who retains those lines now struggles to understands the ambiguity of modern life and the ambiguity of modern president who wants to do the moral thing.
In his writings the author of these postings is blessed to have retained familiar poems from a Georgia classroom of long ago, still demanding attention.
These are snatches of poems now easily verifiable as to context, date and author. How to apply those remembered sounds to a particular modern moment, remains the challenge. One poem that seeks to insert itself in so much of what I write these days, opens this way:
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere is the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882. He wrote the poem April 19, 1860, as part of his Tales of a Wayside Inn, first published in 1863.
The “Seventy-five” in the poem is 1775, when the American colonies were seeking to establish themselves as a nation independent of England. The day on which Longfellow wrote the poem was April 19, 1860.
Longfellow was writing in a time of war fever. The “War Between the States” (as my 1940s Georgia teacher would most certainly have called it) began on April 12, 1861.
In his poem, Longfellow was celebrating the courage of Paul Revere (above, in a modern illustration), an early American revolutionary who alerted his fellow citizens that the British were coming. Revere carried the message for the farmers and merchants that they must to be ready for the attack.
Reinhold Niebuhr is a theologian whose work helped shape President Obama’s keen sense of the ambiguity of political power, before and after change. As I noted in a previous posting, Niebuhr made an important point that applies to leaders who are called to employ coercion in the course of their duties.
Niebuhr wrote in Moral Man and Immoral Society that “moral reason must learn how to make coercion its ally without running the risk of a Pyrrhic victory in which the ally exploits and negates the triumph”.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, he inherited a war machine President George W. Bush had assembled in response to attacks on this nation on September 11, 2001. It was a machine barreling down history’s highway powered by fear, patriotism, revenge, and a genuine need to protect the American people.
It was not a machine easily slowed down nor turned around.
In his new book, The Way of the Knife, Mark Mazzetti writes that the special prison in Cuba is entirely the creation of this nation’s post 9/11 war fever. Mazzetti gives credit for Guantanamo to former CIA official Jose Rodriguez, director of the Bush administration’s Counterterrorism Center from 2002 to 2004.
George Tenet was CIA director in that same period. Tenet held daily 5 p.m. meetings in his office where senior CIA officials “received daily battlefield updates about operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.” Mazzetti writes:
“It was during one of those sessions that Rodriguez made an offhand suggestion that would lead to one of the most fateful decisions of the Bush Administration”.
The discussion on that occasion centered on how the American military should deal with the Taliban fighters “American troops and CIA officers were picking up in Afghanistan” where they could be held “over the long term”.
Various suggestions from officers were offered, including “the Ushuaia prison, on Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego, a desolate facility at the bottom of the world. Another suggested the Corn Island, two tiny specks in the Caribbean Sea off the Nicaraguan coast. But all of these suggestions were dismissed as unrealistic options. Finally Rodriguez offered up an idea, almost in jest, ‘well, we could put them at Guantanamo Bay’, he said”
This evoked laughter around the table as US CIA officials thought “how much it would anger Fidel Castro if the United States were to jail prisoners of its new war on the American military base in Cuba.”
After more discussion, the idea of Guantanamo gained support:
It was an American facility and the fate of the prison would not be jeopardized there as it could be in another country if the government changed leadership and decided to kick the American prisoners out. And the CIA officers figured a prison at Guantanamo Bay would be outside the jurisdiction of American courts. A perfect location, it seemed.
Cuba became the top recommendation for the new American prison, and soon enough the agency would build its own secret jail in one corner of the Guantanamo Bay prison complex. A maximum security facility, it was dubbed Strawberry Fields by CIA officials because the prisoner presumably would be there, as the Beatles sang, “forever”.
Thus did Barack Obama inherit, as part of the burden of his new office, a US prison in a foreign country, on soil under the control of the US. As an added bonus for a post 9/11 nation and its leaders, it was a US prison outside the jurisdiction of US courts.
When Obama took office in 2009, the opportunity lay before him to close Guantanamo prison. But as Josh Rogin writes in The Daily Beast, Obama and his team stumbled coming out of the gate.
In the first weeks of his first term, the Obama team “dropped the ball on closing the controversial military prison by failing to come up with a plan in time, refusing to help House Democrats who were fighting for its closure, and then abandoning the plan altogether and blaming Republicans.”
Rogin places much of the blame on Obama’s newly appointed chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, a fellow Chicagoan, who is now the mayor of Chicago.
Historians will need to examine more closely this chapter in the Obama first term, but for the moment, we have Josh Rogin’s interviews with lawmakers who indicate they tried to help close Guantanamo, but were undermined by the failure of the White House to provide political support for the fight.
According to lawmakers, officials, and experts who were closely involved in that 2009 fight, the White House, led on the issue by then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, was late in coming up with a plan to close the prison and then made a political decision not to help House Democrats who were fighting tooth and nail with Republicans over the policy. According to Rogin:
The fight over restrictions to fund the closure of the prison was led on the Democratic side by then-House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI), and Reps. Jack Murtha (D-PA) and Jim Moran (D-VA). In an interview Thursday with The Daily Beast, Moran said that when fight was on, the White House was nowhere to be found.
“They left all of us twisting in the wind,” he said. “Rightly or wrongly, they gave us a very clear impression, ‘You’re on your own on this issue.’”
White House and Justice Department officials refused congressional requests for briefings, talking points, and other statistics that would have helped Democrats dispute Republican claims that transferring prisoners from the island prison facility increased the threat to national security. Moran argued with Justice officials at the time, but the policy was being made at the White House and was handed down by Emanuel specifically, he said.
“The administration could have weighed in more consistently and more aggressively. They pretty much gave up on getting the Congress to act responsibly on the issue,” Moran said. “It was politically expedient not to use up chips on this issue… Eventually it wasn’t worth fighting anymore because we didn’t have the White House beside us.”
Rogin writes that while White House Counsel Greg Craig was initially given the assignment to work on closing Guantanamo, by the fall of 2009, it became apparent that the closure was not gaining traction. Again, Rogin blames Emanuel:
Craig was repeatedly overruled by Emanuel when it came to implementing the president’s policy. Emanuel saw Guantánamo as a lower priority than other pressing matters such as Iraq, Afghanistan, the economic crisis, and the health-care bill.
Emanuel was the politician closest to Obama in the White House. It is quite likely Emanuel saw Guantanamo as a political liability, a battle not worth fighting at that moment. Democrats have carried a reputation of not being tough enough on foreign enemies, and perhaps Emanuel was afraid any action that enhanced the “weakness” image, was not good for the president’s reelection in 2012.
Whatever the case, the chance to close “Gitmo” from the “get-go” (from the beginning) was lost in 2009, postponed to a later day. Obama’s May 23, 2013, speech indicates he is once again ready to put the weight of the White House behind closing Guantanamo.
Now in the safety of a second term, Obama is in a position to right the wrong of Guantanamo.
Congressman Jim Moran told Rogin, “Congress is not going to move unless the White House is engaged and the president uses his own personal power to force lawmakers to implement a policy they may not like”.
“I believe the president genuinely wants to do this, but he needs to prove it and he needs to be prepared to use his leverage to make it happen.“If he doesn’t achieve it, it’s going to be one of those things that will bother him for the rest of his days.”
This is the moment for President Obama to ride through the streets with his moral message that “Guantanamo must be closed and justice must be found.”
That will bring the moment for President Obama to deliver his own midnight message, bringing the word that “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law” has been removed. When that happens, in Longfellow’s closing passage, “the people will waken and listen to hear”:
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.