Last night on Fox News, Bill Kristol — the most consistently and reliably wrong pundit in America — argued against closing the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay on the grounds that doing so would be “entirely symbolic.”
KRISTOL: Literally, on substance, there is now no argument for closing Guantanamo. It is entirely symbolic. Obama has shown he symbolically would like to. The Europeans love him. They can’t love him anymore, you know. He should reverse himself.
And the Republican position should now be not just to embarrass the Democrats. Republicans should say it is a ridiculous waste of money, and a little dangerous, incidentally, to now close what has turned out to be an extremely effective, well-run facility.
First off, the argument that some of the people held in Gitmo are just too dangerous to be held in the same facilities that have safely held the most dangerous criminals in America for decades…well, let’s just say that I wonder about the intellect of the person who finds such an argument compelling, as well as the mentality of the person who makes it.
Kristol’s dismissal of President Obama’s plan to close Gitmo as simply “symbolic” is pretty interesting. Leaving aside whether it’s true, it is evidence that, for all of his and other conservatives’ effusive praise of the Iraq “surge” for enabling them to assert with a straight face that the Iraq war has not been an utter disaster for the United States, Kristol still does not get one of the key lessons of the counterinsurgency doctrine applied in Iraq: Public relations matters. Symbols matter.
We have a rather substantial body of evidence that Gitmo has been a disaster for America’s image in the world. It’s not hard to understand why. It doesn’t take a constitutional law professor to grasp that the establishment of a U.S. detention facility in Cuba specifically for the purposes of keeping it out of reach of U.S. law was a pretty shady undertaking. Despite the fact that U.S. courts have slowly but surely rejected the Bush administration’s various rationales for it, Gitmo itself remains a potent symbol of American lawlessness, and a driver of anti-American sentiment. This has real consequences for U.S. national security. It raises the political costs for potential American allies and partners. Along with the reported abuses of detainees there and elsewhere, the detention center at Guantanamo Bay has been a significant radicalizing force for Islamic militants. So yes, it’s been effective — at getting American soldiers killed.
On the other hand, arguing for keeping it open could be good for Republicans, so…