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Guantanamo Bay and an empire state of mind

March 11, 2016 at 10:07 am

One of President Obama’s first acts after taking the oath of office for the first time in 2008 was to sign an executive order that was intended to close America’s controversial prison camp in Cuba. Recently, the president tried again. He sent Congress a plan to move some detainees abroad, to countries that have agreed to receive them, and transfer the majority to prisons inside the US.

The plan faces serious opposition among both Democrats and Republicans, and coming in the middle of an already fractious election campaign, it has attracted particular opprobrium from all of the would-be Republican presidential candidates. Indeed, Donald Trump – the party’s front-runner – even had his own secret “plan” leaked to have US citizens suspected of being supporters of Daesh interned in the camp.

There are good reasons why Obama wants to close the prison. For a start, it is seen as something of a recruiting sergeant for America’s adversaries, as former British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett argued in 2006: “It is widely argued now that the existence of the camp is as much a radicalising and discrediting influence as it is a safeguard to security.

It is also absurdly expensive, costing around $5million per detainee in 2013, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Moreover, the ACLU makes the point that, if this money was saved by the camp’s closure, it could go toward funding a range of other – much more worthy – causes, even if kept within the Department of Defence. For example, if Guantanamo were closed and the money redirected towards research into prosthetics for veterans, the research budget would be nearly 80 per cent covered.

However, the third and fourth reasons are easily the most important. These are, (a) the failure to grant detainees their basic right to the due process of law, which is a dangerous blurring of the terms of the US constitution; and (b) this tarnishes America’s image as a beacon for democracy in the world, which is integral to its ability to wield “soft power” abroad.

When looked at in this context, Obama’s plan is clearly far less disagreeable than the Republicans’ suggestions. The dearth of reasonable alternatives, though, shouldn’t distract us from the enormous and critical flaws in the plan; closing Guantanamo will not end the indefinite detention without trial of some 34 detainees.

In other words, even if Obama’s proposal comes to pass (which is far from certain) he will still leave office next year with detainees locked-up without trial. Moreover, the deeper meaning of this precedent is that the US will have effectively accepted that – even under a liberal president with a background in constitutional law – it has, in this respect, become no different from other imperial powers of the past.

American imperialism

The United States has experienced some unusually good fortune as a great power. Despite undertaking overtly expansionist episodes in years gone by, the US has never been seen as an imperialist power in the same way as some European states have. Indeed, the US still enjoys generally positive approval ratings around the globe while at the same time pursuing an enormous expansion of its global military presence.

Yet with the various wars under the George W Bush administration and the perpetuation, or expansion, of policies such as drone-strikes, mass surveillance and support for authoritarian allies during the Obama era, the US has begun to appear more and more like a traditional empire, asserting its will abroad with little respect for local concerns.

Imperial context

Guantanamo Bay’s prison camp fits neatly into this vision of America’s drift into imperialism in more ways than one. As a US navy base occupying the territory of a foreign state – against that state’s wishes – it fits clearly into at least one definition of imperialism.

However, as SOAS Professor Laleh Khalili explains in her excellent book, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies, “The Guantánamo Bay detention camp is liberal carceral confinement taken to its logical conclusion.” In other words, Guantanamo Bay represents one example of a broader approach adopted by the US in order to maintain its liberal order and combat perceived threats.

Moreover, Khalili goes on to explain that not only have there been numerous similar examples of this approach evident in recent years, from Abu Ghraib to CIA black sites (both representing facilities where US personnel tortured and detained people being held without charge), but there is also a profoundly important historical precedent that should haunt the Obama administration. This is the reality that extra-judicial confinement of dissidents was a key method for various European empires to maintain their rule over subjugated people.

For example, during the Arab Revolt in 1936 the British rulers of Palestine used “military courts that convicted Arab rebels, often with dubious evidence, rarely represented by lawyers, and executed within forty-eight hours for owning a gun…” There is plenty of evidence of this in archives and memoirs. By the following year, the British had imprisoned various leaders of the revolt without trial in a prison in the Seychelles, hundreds of miles away in the Indian Ocean. Demonstrating the link between the two examples, Khalili explains that “conquering powers create ostensibly lawless places… replacing legal procedures with administrative procedures.”

From constitutional rights to administrative fiddling

It is precisely this kind of shift away from established legal norms to administrative procedures that exemplifies the true danger implicit in Obama’s plan. Of course, a shift away from endless – extra-judicial – confinement of detainees in a foreign base is something of a positive step. However, the endless, extra-judicial, confinement of detainees in maximum-security federal facilities on the US mainland isn’t much of a serious improvement.

Although Obama has also moved away from the use of torture and closed the CIA’s black sites, even here the progress is reversible. Furthermore, no one has been prosecuted in relation to America’s use of torture, despite the president’s rejection of its legitimacy and clear evidence that crimes were committed.

Clearly, at no point has President Obama sought to resolve the issue by reasserting comprehensively the rule-of-law as it stood prior to when these imperial steps were taken. Thus, that particular path has already become worn and it will be easier for future presidents to follow.

Dr Philip Leech is a Senior Fellow for the Centre on Government at the University of Ottawa. He is the co-editor (with Shabnam Holliday) of Political Identities and Popular Uprisings in the Middle East (Forthcoming, Rowman and Littlefield International) and the author of The State of Palestine: A Critical Analysis (Forthcoming, Routledge). His full profile is online at and is on twitter @phil_haqeeqa.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.