The debate about what to do with the Gitmo prisoners sidesteps the broader strategic issue of restoring America's image, and thus its influence, in the world.
President Obama is hardly alone in emphasizing this point. At the Senate judiciary subcommittee's May 13 hearing on U.S. torture policy, Philip Zelikow, a former counselor at the State Department, testified that his boss, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urged President George W. Bush to shut down Guantanamo as early as 2005 and finally persuaded him by July 2006. It is often forgotten that Bush publicly declared his intention to close the facility the following September. Other former officials say that almost every top civilian and military official in the Bush administration agreed with this declaration—except Cheney and his entourage, who blocked every attempt to implement it.
Last week, in a little-noticed interview with Radio Free Europe, Petraeus endorsed Obama's commitment to shutting down Guantanamo. "Doing that in a responsible manner, I think, sends an important message to the world," he said, "as does the commitment … to observe the Geneva Convention[s] when it comes to the treatment of detainees."
There's something distasteful about the whole debate. The critics of transferring Gitmo prisoners to the United States are the same people who call on the Afghan and Pakistani leaders to crack down, at some risk, on their homegrown insurgents more fervently—and the same people who barely take notice when our armed drones mistakenly kill civilians in the crossfire of the war on terror.
But when decency requires that we take measures that appear to involve a little extra risk, they turn frantically parochial and refuse. And in this case, the measures required don't really involve risk—only responsibility. Surely they know that prisons are one thing that America does really well. Exactly what are the critics afraid of?