The Magazine

What's the Matter with Gitmo?

From the July 4 / July 11, 2005 issue: Detention, torture, and other illiberal things.

Jul 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 40 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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ALTHOUGH PATRICK LEAHY STOPPED SHORT of calling for the closure of the counterterrorism prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in a June 15 Senate hearing on detainees in the war on terrorism, the Vermont Democrat certainly expressed views that now dominate his party and the liberal media. Those views are shared by increasing numbers on the right, who feel queasy about indefinite detentions, secret, unmonitored Central Intelligence Agency prison facilities, and the policy of rendition, whereby the U.S. government turns over terrorists and suspected terrorists to foreign governments for "aggressive interrogation." Given the breathtaking historical illiteracy of Democratic senator Richard Durbin, who had no difficulty juxtaposing Hitler's death camps with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who thought Republican objections to Durbin's remarks were just politically motivated, it's not hard to sympathize with the military and civilian leadership of the Pentagon who have obviously been annoyed by all the criticism.

And much of what has been said, even by thoughtful critics of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the secret CIA prison facilities--on how they have aided our enemies and damaged us in the Middle East--is dubious. But the attacks on the Pentagon and the CIA are not without merit. It is clear the Bush administration hasn't thought through what it's doing in these prison facilities. It hasn't yet appreciated the fact that its mishandling of this issue could seriously damage America's resolve against Islamic terrorism. More important, the administration's continuing ineptitude four years after 9/11 will surely make it more difficult for the country to remember why it must persevere in Iraq and in the democratic transformation of the Middle East.

"The net effect of all these problems," warned Leahy,

is that Guantanamo has not made our country safer. It is increasingly clear that the administration's policies have seriously damaged our reputation in the world and that they are making us less safe. The stain of Guantanamo has become the primary recruiting tool for our enemies. President Bush often speaks of spreading democratic values across the Middle East, but Guantanamo is not a reflection of the values that he encourages other nations to adopt. The United States has often criticized other nations for operating secret prisons, where detainees are hidden away and denied any meaningful opportunity to contest their detention. Now we have our own such prisons. Even if the administration fails to see the hypocrisy in this situation, the rest of the world does not.

Now, some of the concerns the senator expressed do demand the attention of the administration; and to those, we will return in a moment. But first, let us look at the belief, which is now in many corners a firm conviction, that Guantanamo has degraded our security and become a recruiting tool for our enemies. It is impossible to talk sensibly about Guantanamo and other prisons unless we can assess these claims empirically. Secret CIA interrogation centers are undoubtedly a moral, political, foreign-policy, and intelligence problem for the United States. And it's a decent bet that the distribution of information from terrorist interrogations at these facilities has been insufficient to allow anyone to judge how successful Langley's methods and men have been. But neither the CIA facilities, nor the far more open, regulated, and by most accounts kind Guantanamo jail, are likely to have made us less safe by boosting the recruitment of holy warriors. It's possible that the humiliating image of these prisons is somewhere in the cauldron that makes for death-wish holy warriors. Not enough time has passed to allow us to know for sure one way or the other.

However, it is far more reasonable to suppose, given the history of al Qaeda and of the first generation of holy warriors, that the prison's closure would be seen on Islamic extremist websites--the ones New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is rightly terrified of--as an enormous boon to militants. Many in the American elite are beginning to revert to a pre-9/11 worldview, where U.S. aggression or "unilateralism," not American weakness or self-doubt, is seen as the fuel for bin Ladenism. Yet this is a reversal of history. It was the fearful U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon in 1984 and from Somalia in 1994, not the original incursions there, that bin Laden saw as proof that determined Muslims could best the United States.