Gitmo traps Obama

Overreach, the kind Republicans prayed for, came early in the Obama presidency. In his first days in office Barack Obama embarked on a breathless stretch of announcements and executive orders designed to show America what change looks like. It was during those early hours that he made his first mistake by choosing a date certain on which to shut down the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

Though he could have committed to finding a prudent, workable time and process for closing Gitmo, Obama instead pledged it would be done by Jan. 22, 2010, placing it in importance alongside managing an economic crisis and two wars, as well as attempting to overhaul both the nation’s energy and healthcare industries.

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Problem was, Team Obama hadn’t yet conferred with Congress on where to relocate detainees, and as it turns out, his fellow Democrats aren’t game for voting them off the island. Republicans finally found an issue on which to attack the president, and Democrats realized it was working. The slap-down came this week when Senate Democrats followed their House colleagues’ lead and removed from a war-funding bill the $80 million set aside for closing Gitmo. Suddenly the blinding flash of the obvious returned: Just as there was nowhere else for terror suspects to go during the presidential campaign, the transition and the first 100 days of the Obama presidency, there is still nowhere else for them to go.

On Thursday, Obama gives one of his big-picture, take-back-the-narrative speeches, outlining his terror policies at the National Archives. As former Vice President Dick Cheney critiques Obama’s record on national security at a speech across town, Obama will attempt to present at least part of his plan for detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Members of his own party will be eager to hear it. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the president’s closest allies in Congress, who urged him early to run for president, said Tuesday, “The feeling was at this point we were defending the unknown.”

While they claim they will provide funding once they see a plan, Democrats in Congress appear to have rejected the transfer of prisoners to the United States, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stating flatly that “we will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States.”

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) wrote on May 9 in The Washington Post that his constituents in Alexandria would “demonstrate resolve for a higher purpose, echoing John F. Kennedy’s call to accept the challenge presented because it is what happens to be right and good for our nation.” His senior senator, Jim Webb (D-Va.), shot down the idea last weekend.

Another voice answering the call out West was also soon quashed. The small town of Hardin, Mont., according to The New York Times, offered to hold terror suspects at its empty jail, but the entire Montana delegation in Congress jumped to oppose the plan.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller pretty much sealed the deal when he said, “The concerns we have about individuals who may support terrorism being in the United States run from concerns about providing financing [and] radicalizing others [to] the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States.”

It’s hard to imagine Obama breaking his own deadline, but it appears almost impossible to meet. While it is not surprising that Obama is governing to the right on national security issues after campaigning from the left, it is surprising to see him in a quandary of his own making. Like a cat, Obama will usually find a way out if he is cornered, but it is a rare moment when he traps himself.



Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.