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Barack Obama’s Convenient Impotence on Guantanamo

Barack Obama’s Convenient Impotence on Guantanamo

Obama may be powerless to release any inmates, but he sure has a way with shifting responsibility.

US President Barack Obama holds a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 30, 2013. The President on Tuesday answered questions from the press on a variety of topics.(Credit: AFP/Getty Images)

Some twelve weeks into the Guantanamo hunger strike now involving over a hundred inmates, President Obama’s position has evolved from denial to apathy to sudden concern. “I don't want these individuals to die,” Obama recently said of the hunger strikers. “Obviously the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can. But I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this. Why are we doing this?”

Why indeed. And, to borrow the punchline from an old joke: What you mean ‘we’, kemosabe?

It turns out that what Mr. Obama means by we is you. And what he means by you is Congress:

I’m going to go back at this. I’m going to reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interests of the American people.

Obama may be powerless to release any inmates, but he sure has a way with shifting responsibility. It’s not him, you see. It’s those gosh-darned hard-liners in Congress. Sure, the president bears some responsibility for not pushing them hard enough, but basically it’s totally Congress’ fault. The Huffington Post (which, to its credit, has done more than most media outlets to publicize the ongoing horror of Guantanamo), hilariously claims that Obama’s attempts to close Guantanamo have been “stymied by legislative restrictions and inaction by the executive branch.” Wait, you mean the executive branch that works for the president?

The fact is that the executive branch has been far from inactive on this issue. Not only is Congress not preventing Obama from taking action, As Benjamin Wittes notes, many of the policies the president claims to be upset about are his own:

The President’s comments are bewildering because his own policies give rise to the vast majority of the concerns about which he so earnestly delivered himself in these remarks. Remember that Obama himself has imposed a moratorium on repatriating people to Yemen. And Obama himself has insisted that nearly 50 detainees cannot either be tried or transferred.

Glenn Greenwald has thoroughly and frequently detailed numerous ways in which the Obama administration unilaterally embraced or expanded Bush-era policies on indefinite detention in general and Guantanamo in particular. The idea that Obama is powerless to reverse his own policies on such matters is either laughable or frightening, depending on how much credence you give his claims. The closest Obama ever came to arguing for a closure of Guantanamo was when he made his case to Congress for moving the inmates to Illinois – a plan that drew immediate fire from the ACLU, who derided it as “Gitmo North.”

If you’re still in doubt, here’s a list of things Obama could do right now, with no help from Congress, to improve the situation in Guantanamo immensely.

What makes Obama’s feigned impotence even more nauseating is that he has shown no qualms about overstepping his authority on countless other issues. The president didn’t feel constrained by Congress when he unconstitutionally filled vacancies on a labor relations panel. He didn’t feel the need to consult Congress when he unilaterally engaged American forces in a war in Libya. He didn’t mind thumbing his nose at Congress when he devised his drone strike policy. He didn’t trouble himself with Congress’ demands for more information about Benghazi. And yet we’re expected to believe that Obama’s hands are tied by Congress when it comes to reversing his own policies on Guantanamo?

Make no mistake: the mere fact that Obama is even publicly saying the word Guantanamo these days is a positive step. But the idea that Obama has no power to do anything about this problem is an absurd fiction. As the president himself likes to say, “I am not a dictator.” And that’s true – at least on days when it’s convenient to be impotent.


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