Monday, March 16, 2009

Obama Should Be Gutsier on Guantanamo

Obama Should Be Gutsier on Guantanamo

By Eva Rodriguez

The time has come for President Obama to be truly gutsy. A high-level delegation from the European Union met today with members of the Obama administration to discuss the future shuttering of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The White House should now prove that its rhetorical support for closing the camp is more than mere propaganda by declaring its intention to accept at least a few detainees into the United States.

Some European allies are said to be getting antsy about helping the administration on Guantanamo. It is unclear, for example, what level of oversight American authorities will ask host countries to provide for any detainees they accept. And how can these countries be asked -- or even pushed -- to take in former detainees when the United States has thus far failed to make the same commitment? If the United States is too wary of former detainees to allow them in why should friendly countries take on the risk? This is where the gutsy part comes in.

Even before Obama took office, the Bush administration concluded that 17 Chinese Muslims, or Uighurs, detained at Guantanamo should not continue to be held as enemy combatants. China has an ugly tradition of abusing the Uighur community, which has long fought for independence. So the Bush administration could not send the men back for fear that they'd be persecuted.

The International Uighur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation, a reputable organization based in the Washington area, has said it would help those allowed into the U.S. Obama should take advantage of this ready support system and order that one or two of the 17 detainees be given asylum. Such a move would not only help this country right some of the wrongs inflicted on these men, but it could help legitimately squeamish allies once again enthusiastically rally around the cause of closing Guantanamo.

So far, the administration has made grand verbal pronouncements that have amounted to little practical change. Just days after his inauguration, Obama declared that he would close Guantanamo. But contrary to the impression he left during the campaign, the dismantling of the camp would not come swiftly. The Justice Department just last week dropped what could have been mistaken for a legal bombshell when it announced in court documents that it would no longer label those held at Guantanamo as "enemy combatants" and that the administration had changed some of the terms for holding detainees. Obama now requires that only those who "substantially supported" al Qaeda or the Taliban or who "directly supported" armed hostilities against the United States be held -- just a slight toughening of the standards in place during the Bush administration. Obama has also stuck to Bush-era policies concerning state secrets doctrine and opposing federal court review of the cases of those held at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.

While some have criticized the administration's refusal to toss all Bush-era terrorism policies out the window, Obama's caution has come as a relief to me. Policies should be discarded only after careful and thoughtful review. And there's little doubt that President Obama has access to a heck of a lot more national security information -- and thus a more realistic view of actual threats -- than did candidate Obama. The president is right to move slowly. But there is no such justification for dragging out the Uighur case, where even the Bush administration conceded the time has long past to give these men back their freedom.

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