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Page last updated at 21:08 GMT, Friday, 15 May 2009 22:08 UK

Obama's Guantanamo balancing act

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

A soldier stands guard at the front gate entrance to Guantanamo Bay's Camp 6 maximum-security detention facility, 12 May 2009
The order to close Guantanamo was one of Mr Obama's first actions

A pattern is developing.

Barack Obama's decisions to try to block the release of photos allegedly showing abuse of prisoners in US custody, to avoid the pursuit of Bush administration officials who may have sanctioned torture and - now - to restore military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay - suggest that, on contentious national security issues, he plans to take a middle path.

Depending on your point of view, the president should either be applauded for his responsible, pragmatic approach or criticised for reneging on one of his key campaign promises: to turn his back on many of the practices used by the Bush administration, as it prosecuted its "War on Terror".

Of course, all US leaders encounter the same conflict, when campaign rhetoric runs up against the reality of the security briefings they are given as commander-in-chief.

But, having been handed two wars - and a highly contentious foreign policy legacy - this was always going to cause Mr Obama particular headaches.

Not listening

At the heart of the balancing act he is having to perform is a conflict between, on the one hand, the desire of many of his Democratic supporters for a full - and, in their view, indispensible - accounting for what they see as past transgressions and, on the other, the advice he has been getting from lawyers and military commanders about the country's current national security challenges.

If the president's supporters are surprised or let down by the decision to revive the military commissions, they probably have not been listening carefully to what Mr Obama has had to say.

Yes, one of his first actions after taking office was to sign the executive order calling for Guantanamo Bay to be shut down within a year and ordering the military commissions to be suspended.

President Barack Obama

But - while Mr Obama criticised the Bush-era system, indeed, he campaigned against it - he left open the possibility of reviving them, in a modified form.

In narrow policy terms, this is not a U-turn.

But in the wider political arena in which a president also operates, the decision to restore the military commissions comes at an inopportune time.

It follows a clear policy reversal, earlier in the week: Mr Obama's decision to try to block the release of the Pentagon's prisoner abuse photos.

That has had many liberal groups up in arms. They argue that the president's national security justification - that the photos' publication could put US troops in harm's way - had already been rejected by two federal appeals courts.

Upping the ante

Further complicating matters - for herself and, indirectly, for the White House - is Nancy Pelosi.

On Thursday, at a confusing news conference, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives accused the CIA of misleading her, during a briefing she attended in 2002 about harsh interrogation techniques.

Having previously said that she was only told about the legal framework for the methods, she now says that the briefers specifically told her that waterboarding had NOT been used.

The CIA insists that its records suggest the opposite - and, on Friday, the agency's director, Leon Panetta, put out a strong statement denying that the CIA had misled anyone.

So Mr Panetta - a staunch opponent of harsh interrogations - finds himself on the opposite side of this argument to Mrs Pelosi.

Wherever the truth is to be found, Republicans have wasted no time in accusing the Speaker of a serious transgression, upping the ante at a time when the president would dearly have loved it to be lowered.

For, when it comes to Guantanamo Bay, the future of the military tribunals is one of a number of tough choices facing Mr Obama.

His Attorney General, Eric Holder, faced a grilling in Congress this week over the administration's plans to close the camp.

With legislators from both parties unwilling to accept terrorist suspects in their congressional districts, it is far from clear where prisoners transferred to US soil would be housed, or how the process would be funded.

Democrats have rejected a request from the White House for $80m to help shut down the facility, arguing that the president has yet to present them with a clear plan.

President Obama may want to focus on the future, but - for the moment - dealing with the past is presenting him with some of his toughest political battles.



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