Facing Republican reluctance, the new Democratic president seeks to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
President Barack Obama in 2009?
Yes — but also President Joe Biden in 2021, who as Obama's vice president saw firsthand how politically difficult a Guantanamo Bay closure could be.
Difficult, yet essential, according to many foreign policy veterans — including one who held Biden's and Obama's job: Former President George W. Bush, who in his memoir said that Guantanamo Bay "had become a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies."
It still is.
"The concern is that Guantanamo Bay has been a sore and dark spot on the reputation of the United States; something terrorists point to as they did with Abu Ghraib," said Matthew Levitt, director of the Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In fact, the facility "has been both a headache for U.S. policy and a stain on the U.S. reputation for many years," said Daniel Fried, an Atlantic Council distinguished fellow who was the State Department's first special envoy for closure of the Guantanamo Detainee Facility.
The policy headache is still pounding and the international stain still shows since there are still 40 detainees at the facility, including five who were previously cleared for release. Overall about 780 were brought to Guantanamo, where scenes of disoriented detainees in black hoods and orange jumpsuits became global symbols of America's "war on terror."
Those optics may have faded, just as images of combat in Afghanistan have become abstractions to too many Americans amid enduring strife. But the memories may become more vivid with "The Mauritanian," a drama depicting the all-too-real saga of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a native of Mauritania who was swept up post 9/11, sent to Gitmo (as it's often called), endured brutal abuse and outright torture at the hands of U.S. authorities, and was held for 14 years — without ever being formally charged with a crime.
Released in 2016, Slahi wrote a bestselling memoir detailing his ordeal, "Guantanamo Diary," which "The Mauritanian," is partly based on. The movie, playing in some theaters and available on demand starting on Tuesday, has big stars — Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, and in Golden Globe nominated roles, Jodie Foster as Slahi's attorney and Tahar Rahim as Slahi, who became a follower of al-Qaida during the U.S.-backed war against the Soviet-backed Afghan government, but was not directly linked to any complicity in the 9/11 attacks.
But the real star is the North Star that is the U.S. Constitution, which both the defense and prosecution attorneys turn to in pursuit of truth and justice in an era when both virtues were obscured by fear.
The film doesn't flinch (although viewers might) from depicting Slahi's torture, which should shock the national conscience anew and shame the national leaders who perpetrated the ineffective, and most importantly, immoral practice that discredited the very democracy America proposed to impose in Afghanistan and later, Iraq.
Biden's bid to close Gitmo will involve top officials from the Departments of Defense, State and Justice, who along with others will take part in a "robust" review, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, suggesting that the president won't circumvent Congress.
As it should be: This is an American issue, not a Democratic or Republican one, so solutions should be bipartisan. But that will be difficult when senators like John Cornyn of Texas demagogue Democratic efforts by saying that their "obsession with bringing terrorists into Americans' backyards is bizarre, misguided and dangerous. Just like with President Obama, Republicans will fight it tooth and nail."
This issue "has come against severe partisan debate, and the nature of partisan debate in this country has gotten worse," said Levitt, who added, "The United States has a very strong record of prosecuting terrorists in civilian courts. I have every confidence that the Department of Justice would be able to adjudicate these cases."
Doing so might finally finish this dark chapter in American history. But since Congress passed a law barring the transfer of any detainees from the U.S. for any reason, congressional cooperation is needed.
But as is apparent in nearly every aspect of American politics — and life — the brief bipartisanship that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks dissipated, thwarting previous presidents' attempts to reckon with the reckless decision to detain hundreds in Gitmo.
"Bush tried to close Guantanamo, for which he got no support from Democrats but no pushback from the Republicans," Fried said. "When Obama tried to close it, he got no support from Republicans."
Even if Biden's bid to finally move on moved some Republicans to reach across the aisle, reaching across the oceans to repatriate some detainees will be difficult since some countries won't accept their former citizens, even if they haven't been convicted, let alone charged with a crime.
Some European allies, revitalized by Biden's recommitment to traditional transatlantic alliances, may be willing to help, but Levitt said that "the Europeans are taking a much harder line on this issue in general."
An international tribunal is another potential option but doing so under United Nations auspices may be spiked by Beijing and Moscow, Levitt said, adding: "The bottom line is this is very, very complicated stuff."
Indeed, the complexity precludes simple solutions.
But a bipartisan area of agreement, Levitt said, is the need to address a generation of Mideast military involvement.
"We talk about 'forever wars' — do we really want to have this kind of 'forever internment system' when we have an extremely robust judicial system in a country that really does believe in the rule of law?" Levitt rhetorically asked.
Ultimately, it's not just about the Mauritanians or other Middle Eastern and North African detainees, but Americans locked into a policy that keeps the country from living up to its founding principles.
Guantanamo should be closed, Fried said, "because it has to do with American values and American security."
And ultimately, honoring our constitutionally enshrined values is the best, and only, method to truly achieve security.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.