Posted on February 22, 2010 in Washington Watch

Last April we polled across the Arab World asking what Arabs thought was the most positive early action President Obama had taken to improve U.S.-Arab relations. High up on the list (barely topped by the decision to leave Iraq) was the President’s pledge to close Guantanamo and ban torture. That this issue would out poll Obama’s early steps to forge a Middle East peace or his outreach to the Arab and Muslim worlds should not have been surprising.

Arabs have developed a healthy skepticism about the ability or desire of U.S. presidents to deliver on promises to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, but they are willing to believe that the U.S. can change direction and alter its own behavior on a matter that doesn’t involve Israel. And the issues of torture and the prolonged detentions of prisoners at Guantanamo and other sites around the globe were seen as deeply disturbing policies that the President could and should change.

For years now, our polls have established the degree to which America’s treatment of Arab and Muslim prisoners has angered Arab public opinion. While the images from Abu Ghraib may have faded in the U.S., not so in the Arab World. In a way, the entire enterprise resembled a hate crime, in that while the targets of the degrading treatment may have been individual men, the impact and the humiliation was deeply felt region-wide.

Guantanamo, the CIA’s secret “black site” prisons and the practice of “rendition” only served to compound this disgrace, demonstrating both hypocrisy and the arrogance of power. America might claim high ideals and advocate for human rights and rule of law, but our behavior told Arabs that “human rights” did not apply to them, and “rule of law” did not apply to us, when we decided that we were above the law.

Against this backdrop, Obama’s emphatic pledges to close Guantanamo and ban torture were well received and seen as signaling a dramatic departure from Bush-era policies.

It is, therefore, a concern that one year later Guantanamo has not been closed and other abusive practices have been retained. Adding to this disappointment is the fact that while new information has come to light regarding the authorized and wide-spread use of torture against prisoners held at Guantanamo and other U.S.-sanctioned “black sites” around the world, no one is being called to account for their behavior.

Facing stiff opposition from both Republicans and members of his own party, the President, it appears has settled on a plan that instead of closing Guantanamo, would merely move it to a new location – a maximum security prison in Illinois. To facilitate the move and the continued detention of inmates, there are reports that the White House is working with a Republican senator to craft legislation that would allow for “prolonged detention without charge or trial” – a practice long used by Israel and criticized by the U.S. and human rights organizations as a violation of international law and convention. And while no new prisoners have been added to Guantanamo, it appears that this is because Baghram prison in Afghanistan is serving as the new Guantanamo, with prisoners captured in other countries being flown to Baghram for interrogation and detention.

The ban on torture has taken hold, but the sins of the past still haunt the Obama Administration’s efforts. There are, for example, the problems associated with bringing to trial those prisoners who have been tortured. Evidence against them derived from coerced interrogations will be viewed as tainted and not admissible in a legal proceeding. There is also the possibility that trials would result in shining a light on the torture techniques used.

When Attorney General Eric Holder released the “torture memos” written by Bush Administration lawyers providing “legal justification” for a catalog of grotesque “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read: “torture”), Republicans, led by the former Vice President launched a fierce assault on the Obama Administration. Not wanting this debate to distract from his broader legislative agenda, the President blinked, indicating that he wanted to “look forward, not backwards”, suggesting that there would be transparency, but no accountability for these crimes of the past. This only served to embolden Republicans. In a recent television appearance, for example, the Vice President proudly admitted that he supported “water-boarding” prisoners. And at this weekend’s annual gathering of conservative activists, the issue was the subject of jokes and cheers.

Further revelations of torture and other instances of past abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo, Baghram and “black sites” continue to appear in U.S. publications making it more difficult for the Obama to portray the matter as “closed”.

In the end, it appears that these deep holes inherited by President Obama are no less steep than other Bush-era legacies: two unfinished wars, a stalled and worsening Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a failing economy and a host of other domestic challenges. When the poisoned well created by a partisan divide is added to this grim picture, the way forward is difficult to navigate. Credit must still be given to the President’s good intentions, but it is now clear that it will take more than a year to undo the damage of the last eight.

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