Entry from January 25, 2009

The election was hardly out of the way before the media started noticing that there might be the odd hitch in prospects for the fulfilment of the new President Obama’s campaign promises. In particular, his promise to close the prison for terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, suddenly came to seem less than a simple matter. As the Los Angeles Times put it, “The debate,” among the members of the Obama team about what to do about the prison there, “suggests that the decision to close Guantanamo may be the easy part for Obama. Much harder will be sorting out the legal complexities of holding, prosecuting, transferring or releasing the roughly 250 prisoners.”

Gee, yah think? I wonder why nobody thought of that before? For it seems to have occurred to no one before the election, when not just Senator Obama but Senator McCain as well were glibly promising to cave to the anti-war left, to consult those “experts on detention policy, including close Obama allies,” who, said the paper, “are convinced that problems posed by many of the detainees are insoluble.” Whoa! Where were the experts themselves, I wonder? Wouldn’t it have been helpful for them to tell us back in September or October that the detainees “may be too dangerous to release but will never be able to stand trial in U.S. courts because of tainted evidence or allegations of mistreatment”?

Well, better late than never, I guess. Now, other papers are beginning to discover, as the London Daily Telegraph has, that “Guantánamo is no less a problem for Barack Obama than for George W Bush.” Even The New York Times is now beginning to ask “Where Will Detainees From Guantánamo Go?” In that case, the question may have something to do with the fact that the Times had been forced to notice on the previous day that one Guantánamo detainee already released by the Bush administration has gone on to a new career in terrorism in Yemen. “The militant, Said Ali al-Shihri, is suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing of the United States Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana, in September. He was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before resurfacing with Al Qaeda in Yemen.”

Yikes! You mean that the Saudi rehabilitation program didn’t work? Who would have figured that? You can just imagine the wheels turning in the minds of the Obama administration’s team of “experts” as they contemplate the public relations disaster that would result from terrorist recidivism by even a small number of those now expected to be released, or held in prisons in the U.S. which might then themselves become terrorist targets. The Times reporter, Robert F. Worth notes that, although “the Pentagon has said that dozens of released Guantánamo detainees have ‘returned to the fight,’ its claim is difficult to document, and has been met with skepticism.”

But Mr Worth has himself checked out Said Ali al-Shihri and knows that he, at least, has indeed “returned to the fight” — with the result that (at least) 16 people in Yemen are dead. Maybe this is what made Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane in the next day’s paper note that

Republican lawmakers, who oppose Mr. Obama’s plan, found a talking point with political appeal. They said closing Guantánamo could allow dangerous terrorists to get off on legal technicalities and be released into quiet neighborhoods across the United States. If the detainees were convicted, the Republicans continued, American prisons housing terrorism suspects could become magnets for attacks. Meanwhile, none of the Democrats who on Thursday hailed the closing of the detention camp were stepping forward to offer prisons in their districts or states to receive the prisoners.

I guess that’s just another one of those Go Figure moments. But you’ve got to wonder what is it that makes it news that “incoming administration officials admit that every option is imperfect.” You’d think that at least some among such a smart bunch of experts would have had sense enough to know that already.

Of course, the chances are that they did. It was the media to whom it never occurred before the election to ask any of those Democratic demagogues in full flight about the iniquities of the Bush administration about what they would do instead in the case of the detainees — or anything else. That’s where they might have done well to heed the advice of Eliot Cohen in Friday’s Wall Street Journal to

follow the advice of the late Raymond Aron, the wisest French policy intellectual of modern times: Never criticize a policy unless you can convincingly depict a better course of action. Aron, like many of the greatest commentators on policy, had virtually no experience in government, but great empathy for those in a position to decide. Empathy — the capacity for imagining what it is like to be the other — is an essential quality for the thoughtful pundit.

But then I don’t imagine anyone is surprised by the paucity of thoughtful pundits that today’s media can boast.

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