Paul Greenberg / May 27, 2009

Rare Sighting: Reason in the Senate

Will miracles never cease? Reason raised its seldom-seen head last week – in of all places, the United States Senate.

In an extraordinary show of near-unanimity, not to mention an extraordinary show of common sense, the senators voted 90 to 6 against funds to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay.

It was a prudent decision. Gitmo is now home to hundreds of (a) the most dangerous characters on Earth, (b) the most fanatical America-haters on Earth, and © both. The prison camp, now Red Cross-approved, provides medical attention, room and board, due process, recreation facilities, prayer calls and a strictly halal diet, and many another amenity for our guests. Indeed, Guantanamo has become a kind of model of its kind. Why close it without a clear alternative, or close it at all?

That’s the question confronting Barack Obama, who has vowed to shut down the place essentially for Public Relations reasons. Our enemies don’t like it. And they’ve made Guantanamo an effective theme of their all too convincing rhetoric, just as Barack Obama did during his presidential campaign.

And yet, once in office and given the kind of information he should have taken seriously even before he was sworn in, our president has rethought some of his glib pronouncements during the campaign. Especially about threats to the national security.

For instance, Mr. Obama now recognizes that the military commissions he used to denounce as a “legal black hole” have a long and honorable history, and have proven the best way to handle some of these bad actors. (They’re not officially “illegal combatants” any more. Just as, according to the administration’s newspeak, the war on terror the president is pursuing may no longer be referred to by that name.)

Mr. Obama also has changed his mind about releasing photos of prisoners being abused in Iraq and Afghanistan, having come to understand what a field day our enemies would have with them – even if the abuse they depict has already been the subject, quite properly, of military justice. Good for him. Nobody ever mistook Barack Obama for a slow learner. He’s not scared by that hobgoblin of little minds, a foolish consistency.

But the president and commander-in-chief has yet to reverse his decision to close Gitmo. He’s still for shutting the place down – without specifying what he’ll do with its occupants.

But this time the usually passive Democratic Congress refused to go along. And rightly so. Before leaving one location for another, it is best to know where you’re going. Which is all Congress is really asking. It’s a fair question, but the president was so unnerved by this rare sighting of reason in the Congress of the United States that he promptly did what he always does when in a fix: Give a speech.

It doesn’t matter what Barack Obama says in a speech so long as he gives one. Among the things he didn’t say this time was just where he’d put the dangerous fanatics now locked up at Guantanamo. A minor detail. The only thing that seems to count with American public opinion is that he’s given a speech, not its substance, if any.

Indeed, from a purely political perspective, it’s better that he say nothing. That way, there’s nothing to criticize. See the glowing reception accorded his saying nothing much about abortion at Notre Dame. There would be much to commend this president’s value-free style of politics if the sole aim of politics were to sound good. And he sounds brilliant.

That’s the empty essence of his Mr. Cool style; few are those who can hope to get away with it. This president has mastered it. It’s his gift. And it explains why he’s in the best of positions for a politician. To quote one observer, this president gets good press just for getting good press.

Who were the six senators who were ready to shut down Guantanamo without knowing where its occupants would go? Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tim Harkin of Iowa, Pat Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, and Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of little Rhode Island. So can we count on them to volunteer their states to house our all-too-distinguished guests at Gitmo? You know the answer to that one.

Even some of those senators who voted against shutting down Guantanamo say the place should be shuttered eventually. Why? To quote Dianne Feinstein, the senator from California: “Guantanamo is used by al-Qaida as a symbol of American abuse of Muslims and is fanning the flames of anti-Americanism around the world.”

Can she believe that, if there were no Guantanamo, our enemies wouldn’t find another propaganda theme to rally America-haters around the world?

So how about if we just tell al-Qaida to go to Hell? And add that Gitmo will remain open and ready for business – if those who kill innocents in the name of Allah are lucky enough, or cooperative enough, to make it there alive.

At least for the moment, the president is sticking with his vow to shut down Guantanamo, even if he’s reversed himself on one campaign stand after another. It is not his changes of course in this war on terror that disturb. On the contrary, they’re commendable. They show a realistic recognition of the kind of world in which we live. There’s nothing wrong with his having second and better thoughts; it’s just that he hasn’t had quite enough of them yet.


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