Of palm trees and paperwork

Howard Anglin Contributor
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Yo soy un hombre sincero, de donde crece la palma …

It’s rather embarrassing, but the only thing I have to show for two semesters of high school Spanish is the ability, under the influence of bad friends and good tequila, to warble the first verse of Guantamera, the old Cuban song that was a staple of 1960s folk singers. Still, thanks to that class, after the president’s self-imposed deadline for shuttering the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay passed unmet last Friday, I couldn’t get that opening line out of my head.

A week may be a long time in politics, but the last fifty-two weeks must have raced by for the administration. It seems hardly a year ago that President Obama – another hombre from a land of swaying palm trees – signed an executive order ordering Guantanamo Bay prison closed. His exact words at the time, accompanied by a lightning storm of flashbulbs:

This first executive order that we are signing, by the authority vested in me as president by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, in order to affect the appropriate disposition of individuals currently detained by the Department of Defense at Guantanamo, and promptly to close the detention facility at Guantanamo consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interest of justice, I hereby order. And we then provide, the process whereby Guantanamo will be closed no later than one year from now.

Has a year come and gone so soon? Now, with noticeably less fanfare than the original announcement, the Washington Post reports that “[a] Justice Department-led task force has concluded that nearly 50 of the 196 detainees . . . should be held indefinitely under the laws of war.” From “no later than one year” to “held indefinitely” in a single year – that’s quite a pirouette, even by limber standards of Washington.

You would be forgiven for assuming the president’s supporters are dismayed at administration’s volte face. Some are. Others are more inclined to excuse the broken promise, none more so than Obama-apologist Andrew Sullivan.

Sullivan’s hook is a statement from Council on Foreign Relations fellow John Bellinger. Despite conceding that the prison’s “operational problems have long been worked out [and] is now expertly run by the military in a humane way that is consistent with international legal standards,” Bellinger judges the reputational harm to American diplomatic and intelligence efforts too high to justify keeping it open.

Bellinger attributes the president’s broken promise to “[p]olitically gun-shy Democratic majorities [who] are unlikely to vote to move the Guantanamo detainees into the United States during an election year.” Sullivan, naturally, goes further.

According to Sullivan, Obama bears no blame. The president’s violation of his own executive order is, we are told, due to three things: “the chaotic state the Bush-Cheney crew left the paperwork in; the nihilism and fear-mongering of the GOP; and the usual lack of nerve among Democrats.” Few on either side of the aisle will quibble with the last factor, and there may even be a defensible argument to be made on the second. But, paperwork? Paperwork?

We are supposed to believe that the president of the United States was unable to close a single military prison containing 196 men because the Oval Office inbox was full. Or the DOD outbox was full. Or the little government issue pencils kept breaking. Paperwork?

President Obama is commander in chief. He has plenary authority in foreign affairs and virtually unlimited power over military operations. He is even authorized to assume command on the battlefield personally if he is dissatisfied with his generals, as Presidents Washington and Madison did during the Whiskey Rebellion and the Battle of Bladensburg, respectively. But paperwork for a couple hundred prisoners of war is too much to handle.

Sullivan does his man no favors; the excuse itself is an indictment.

I’m sorry Mr. Churchill, the American people understand your plight and, believe me, I’m no fan of the Germans, but you have to understand what I’m dealing with here. Do you have any idea how much paperwork it takes to mobilize a million troops?

Yes, a dam on the Colorado River would be a boon to the West, and I know it would provide jobs for tens of thousands of workers, but you are talking about building the largest concrete structure in history! Can you imagine the paperwork?

Well, we certainly don’t want to fall behind the Soviets, and putting a man on the moon would be an historic achievement. But there are other things to consider – the paperwork, for one, would be enormous.

Blaming paperwork for failing to fulfill a signal campaign promise is unpresidential.

If he so desired, President Obama could order the prison closed tomorrow. He could transfer the detainees to another military prison, he could put them in floating brigs or he could order them all transferred to federal prisons for civilian trials. He has the power; he lacks the will.

Obama’s backtracking is for the best. There are no good options for dealing with the remaining detainees, and none better than leaving most of them where they are. No country that can be trusted to take them will. But Obama knew this when he pledged to close the prison. Even as he was signing the executive order, his intelligence adviser Bruce Riedel was telling Der Spiegel “What is left in Guantanamo is the hard core; the easy cases are long gone.”

The American people are thus left with two possibilities: either Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo was a cynical campaign ploy, or the administration, with a defense budget of over $500 billion and an army of lawyers and legal advisers, was defeated by paperwork. Sullivan cannot accept that the president is not un hombre sincero, but is the alternative really more reassuring?

Howard Anglin is a lawyer and sometime political advisor and writer living in Washington, D.C.  He has written on international law, U.S. constitutional law, politics, literature, food and wine for publications including National Review, The American Conservative, The Salisbury Review (London), the Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen.