By William Fisher
Should we be surprised that Australia – once our staunchest ally in the “global war on terror” – has for the second time refused a request from the lame-duck Bush Administration to accept any of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners the U.S. Government has been trying to release?
As have most of the other countries in the world.
How come we’re having such a hard time? After all, are we not the leader of the free world? Are we not the world’s sole remaining superpower? And haven’t we been generous to a fault in providing arms and military advice and all manner of other economic and humanitarian aid to most of the countries now turning their backs on us?
These nations must be just plain ingrates.
Or maybe we’ve hoisted ourselves by our own petard.
Yep, one could make a pretty good case for the latter. Consider this:
Way back in 2002, our rock star Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld famously referred to Guantanamo prisoners as "the worst of the worst." The press loved it. Rummie’s line became one of period’s most iconic quotes.
Rummie must have loved the line too, because he kept using it. As recently as 2005, he was saying, "If you think of the people down there, these are people, all of whom were captured on a battlefield. They're terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers, (Osama bin Laden's) bodyguards, would-be suicide bombers, probably the 20th 9/11 hijacker."
Well, Rummie, the rest of the world was listening too. Now, there are a host of reasons why countries are declining to provide homes for GITMO detainees – foreign governments have long memories when it comes to W’s cowboy unilateralism. But if we gave you the gift of a “worst of the worst” figleaf, why in the world would you be willing to accommodate the country that failed to consult you about Guantanamo, WMD, the invasion of Iraq, or much of anything else?
You wouldn’t. And they haven’t.
Rumsfeld kept delivering his favorite zinger – now joined by a veritable Greek chorus of sycophants including Richard Myers, then Chairman of Joint Chief of Staff -- despite massive and incontrovertible evidence that “the worst of the worst” riff was simply a lie.
For years now, we have all known that perhaps only five percent of those held at GITMO were even captured by the United States – more than 90 percent of them were picked up by the warlords of the Northern Alliance or by Pakistani forces in exchange for bounties. We have all known that only some eight percent of these prisoners were accused of being members of Al Qaeda, and that up to a third of them may have been imprisoned by mistake.
That information comes from Bush’s own CIA. But the White House has chosen to ignore it and continue to insist that all GITMO detainees are "enemy combatants" subject to indefinite incarceration. A top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed the CIA report and turned down proposals for a thorough review of the detainees' cases. “There will be no review," was the reported response of Cheney staff director David Addington, who added, "The president has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it."
Well, governments all over the world heard exactly the same information. So why would they want these “enemy combatants” free to stir up mischief in their country?
Now, if any of these countries needed a further excuse to say “no thanks,” there’s always this: “If these prisoners are so benign, how come the United States has refused to take in any of them?”
Tough question, that.
There have been ample opportunities for the U.S. to demonstrate the innocence of many GITMO prisoners by resettling them in America. At this very moment, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington is considering whether 17 Chinese Muslims should be allowed to enter our country.
These people are known as Uighurs. They are fierce opponents of the Chinese Government but have never harbored any hostility toward the U.S. The State Department says it can’t return them to China for fear they will be tortured or otherwise persecuted.
After a lower court Federal judge ordered the Uighurs released immediately and brought to his courtroom as their first step toward resettlement in the U.S., what did the government do? It sought to have the lower court ruling reversed by appealing it. NIMBY is alive and well. The appeals court decision is pending.
There are now some 60 GITMO detainees for whom the government is trying to find homes. It is extremely unlikely that this is going to happen in the waning weeks of the Bush Administration.
Leaving Barack Obama with yet another problem to solve. He has pledged to close Guantanamo Bay but, as of now, we don’t know what he will do with the prisoners we’d like to release, much less how he plans to handle those we still consider dangerous terrorists.
The takeaway from this mess is that we don’t have anything like the leverage we once thought we had. We are no longer trusted. Restoring that trust is going to be a long and difficult process. It promises to be one of President Obama’s toughest challenges.
Thanks a lot, Rummie!