Unhealthy Obsession

100616-N-7456N-091Could there be a more appropriate monument to the War in Terror than the wasteful and counterproductive prison camp at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base? At a cost of $4,360.00 a day per prisoner, it is among the most expensive lock-ups on the planet and surely the most expensive for inmates who are neither deposed heads of state nor leaders of defeated rebellions. (For that amount you could book a Premier Suite at the Ritz Carleton Central Park and still have a thousand dollars left over to pay for dinner!)

The cost in international reputation cannot be calculated in dollars but there is no doubt that Guantanamo has become the favorite symbol of Washington’s hypocrisy about human rights and the rule of law. Lectures about unfair courts and horrible conditions in the prisons of other countries ring hollow when they come from a government that has held people indefinitely and without trial for more than a decade in a ‘war’ with no definable end.

Absurd expenditure and international embarrassment notwithstanding, Republicans politicians insist on operating Guantanamo as the location to conduct an unending spectacle of punishment. Their problem is that 103 of the 166 prisoners are now weeks into a hunger strike to demand release and President Obama renewed his now five year old campaign promise to shut down the prison camp.

The response of Congressional Republicans and most but not all of their Democratic colleagues on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee was to vote a measure that would block closing the prison camp, prohibit transfer of any of its prisoners either to the U.S. or other countries, and to fund another $247 million in construction. For its part, the Pentagon Brass ordered another company of MPs to assist in the medicalized torture of force feeding the hunger strikers.

No one in government has labeled it a SURGE but that’s what it is. Now if the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that the success of any surge is temporary. The reason is that doing more of the same thing more intensely – which is the basic idea in a surge – is that it treats the symptoms but not the underlying malady.

Beyond the obvious, there is one very big difference between the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan and what Congressional Republicans and the Pentagon are doing at Guantanamo. The surges in Iraq and Afghanistan were undertaken to extract the United States military from disasters created by the Bush administration; the surge in Guantanamo is intended to make a misguided policy begun by the Bush administration permanent.

091007-A-5584W-025It is tempting to attribute what appears to be a deeply irrational policy preference to geography. Cuba has been the focus of the political fantasies of American conservatives for over 150 years. Consider the conspiracy to add the island to the Union as a slave state prior to the Civil War; wildly sensationalistic news coverage of Spanish rule on the island in the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers before the Spanish-American War; the Bay of Pigs invasion; the CIA’s comic opera assassination schemes targeting Fidel Castro; trade sanctions to ruin the island’s economy; and continuing to list the Cuba government as a state sponsor of terror. Maintaining a prison camp for “the worst of the worst” bogeymen on the island could be understood as yet another episode in a history of unhealthy obsession.

Then there is the opportunity to thwart President Obama and to urge to defend the legacy of the most recent former President Bush. Guantanamo is another example of the sort of zero sum partisanship that now poisons American political life.

Most importantly however, Congressional Republicans know that many Americans still believe the original justification for the Guantanamo decision. They still credit the assertions that the prisoners are terrorist supermen and that the naval base holds some special magic as a place for interrogation and trials. Given the failure of Congressional Democrats to challenge the nonsense it is unsurprising that their rivals keep repeating the same appeals to fear. What neither has figured out is what to do when most Americans finally recognize how badly we were deceived.


Selling Guantanamo by John Hickman
John would like you to buy his new book, Selling Guantanamo, so click here.

Image credits: Humvee at Guantanamo (no individual credit provided); Guantanamo jog photo by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Nistas - both photos via The US Army's Flickr photo stream.
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.