Guantanamo Bay: The tide turns

The Bush administration has received a legal setback over its detention without trial of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. But neither the US courts nor Congress can be expected to shut down the camp. Only public opinion and protest will do that.

August 1, 2006
7 min read

The US Supreme Court’s 29 June ruling in Hamdan v Rumsfeld against the Bush administration’s aim of setting up special military commissions to try detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was a welcome comeuppance for the imperial presidency Bush has cultivated since 11 September 2001. For the past several years, Bush has claimed the power to detain so-called unlawful enemy combatants without trial indefinitely; to ‘extraordinarily render’ people to countries known to torture prisoners; to defy Geneva Conventions and other international treaties and laws that restrict his war-making powers; to engage in surveillance without legal warrants; and to engage in practices that even the US describes as torture (on the condition that other countries engage in them). But the court’s ruling alone does not spell an end to the imperial presidency, nor will it lead to the closing of Guantánamo.

‘Nobody gets a “get-out-of-jail-free” card,’ proclaimed White House press secretary Tony Snow. ‘This will not mean closing down Guantánamo.’ The editors of the Wall Street Journal were quick to point out that: ‘Amid all of the anti-war cheering, we should also point out what Hamdan does not do. It does not shut down the detention centre at Guantánamo Bay, or question the president’s right to hold unlawful combatants for the duration of hostilities. It also does not apply to most of the prisoners there — only 10 of the roughly 450 Guantánamo detainees are immediately affected by the ruling. And it does not reclassify enemy combatants as ordinary prisoners of war, as many in the European left and ACLU [the American Civil Liberties Union] would prefer. Moreover, Hamdan affirms that military commissions are constitutional and an appropriate part of American law.’

The Bush administration made it clear it would immediately seek congressional approval for the commissions to try at least some of the remaining Guantánamo detainees, many of whom have been held for years without any due process, stressing that the Supreme Court’s judgement only challenged the power of the president to establish such tribunals without congressional oversight. ‘The court’s conclusion ultimately rests upon a single ground: Congress has not issued the executive a blank cheque,’ Supreme Court justice Stephen G Breyer wrote in his concurring opinion.

Sadly, though, the US Congress has essentially given Bush such a blank cheque. The Democrats — who have posed no substantive opposition to the wars against Afghanistan or Iraq, or the broader, open-ended ‘war on terror’ — have voted repeatedly in support of the Bush administration’s imperial agenda. The Democrats have at times raised tactical differences, but on the decisive questions, they have voted to renew the USA Patriot Act, to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, and to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, and they have remained largely silent on Guantánamo and other detention camps the US has established around the world.

After the Supreme Court judgment, a number of leading congressional Democrats declared they would work with Bush to pass legislation allowing the tribunals to continue – and, of course, preserve Guantánamo. Meanwhile, the Republicans quickly sought to take advantage of the ruling. As the Washington Post noted, the party ‘looked to wrest a political victory from a legal defeat in the supreme court, serving notice to Democrats that they must back President Bush on how to try suspects at Guantánamo Bay or risk being branded as weak on terrorism’ – a trap that the Democrats never tire of falling into.

Indeed, in the media buzz about the Hamdan v Rumsfeld decision (named after Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who had allegedly served as Osama bin Laden’s driver), one very important fact was repeatedly missed. As the New York Daily News reported, ‘While the president negotiates with Congress on the new rules [for handling detainees], construction workers from a Halliburton Corp subsidiary were preparing the new $30 million maximum-security jail at the naval base on Cuba’s southeastern coast for an August opening.’

Ironically, one of the most prominent voices to call for closing Guantánamo is retired US army general Barry R McCaffrey – but for different reasons than those put forward by human rights activists around the globe. McCaffrey believes that if the Guantánamo detainees are released, ‘It may be cheaper and cleaner to kill them in combat than sit on them for the next 15 years.’

So, while the Hamdan decision was a welcome one, we should not expect the Supreme Court or Congress to close Guantánamo. The deeper problems of torture, rendition, and the ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the open-ended rationale of the ‘war on terror’, which may be used to mobilise an attack against Iran, Syria or another target, remain.

In other ways, though, the tide is turning. Public opinion in the US has shifted against the Iraq intervention, with a majority now feeling it was wrong to attack Iraq and that the invasion has made people less, not more, safe. A Zogby poll found that 72 per cent of active duty US troops in Iraq want to come home within a year, and 29 per cent want to come home immediately. Every day, people appreciate more and more the contradictions between the lies told to get the US into Iraq and the reality on the ground. Each claim to have ‘turned a corner’ in Iraq is less credible than the last. In May 2006, the number of bodies that came through the central morgue in Baghdad was double that of May 2005. Iraqi attacks on US and allied forces now average 600 a week, up 13 per cent from the end of 2005.

Groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War have taken a courageous stand against the Iraq occupation, raising three demands. These are: immediate withdrawal, reparations for the Iraqis, and genuine support for veterans who have been abandoned by an administration that drones on about how we must ‘support our troops’ – by which they mean only that we must support a government that sends them needlessly to kill and be killed.

The campaign Witness Against Torture: A Campaign to Shut Down Guantánamo is organising a campaign of education and civil disobedience. And more connections are being made within the US anti-war movement between Guantánamo and the roll back of domestic civil liberties, especially for immigrants and Muslims, that has gone hand in hand with the war abroad.

Members of the Green Party and other anti-war activists were instrumental in winning referendums in 24 towns in the state of Wisconsin recently calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. These local initiatives can make an important connection between what’s happening in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and Guantánamo, and what is happening in communities across the US. The costs of this war now amount, at a conservative estimate, to hundreds of billions of dollars.

A recent study by Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University lecturer Linda Bilmes estimates the full cost of the war is closer to $1.5 trillion and could rise to $2.6 trillion if the occupation continues to 2010. Meanwhile, communities across the country have seen cuts in health care, education, job training, and other vital social programmes. The number of families with loved ones and friends killed or injured in Iraq is growing every day.

More needs to be done, however, to support soldiers who are speaking out and who are declaring conscientious objection, to challenge the lies recruiters tell to entice vulnerable young people into the military, to link the war abroad with the war against immigrants and poor and working people, to confront politicians who support the war, and to build momentum for immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. A significant gap exists in the US between popular opinion and the degree of organisation and protest, especially the kind of protest that can disrupt business-as-usual for US elites and force them to rethink the cost-benefit calculus of remaining in Iraq and maintaining an international gulag system.


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