January 29, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
Do actions really speak louder than words? Not always. Sometimes words speak louder than actions. In politics that is actually often the case. President Obama's announcement last week that he will be closing Guantanamo Bay has been greeted here and abroad with jubilation, every bit as much as if the gates of the detention center had been permanently shut, chained and padlocked.
Some people didn't even seem to realize that there is a difference between word and deed. As The Washington Post on Friday crowed: "Bush's war on terror ends abruptly." And not a minute too soon, from the perspective of The Post. But sorry, no. The world did not change substantially on Mr. Obama's second day in office (any more than it did on his first, actually).
Abroad, Mr. Obama's election in and of itself has been a watershed event for the image of the United States. Not only is he the first elected African-American leader of a Western nation, but he is also considered the "Anti-Bush." Former President George Bush did actually announce in the fall that his administration would look for a way to close Gitmo, but did that earn him any goodwill here or abroad? Of course not.
Mr. Obama's signing of the executive order to close the camp on Thursday, however, has been hailed by international leaders as a great moral victory - even though there is a more than a good chance that it will make the world a more dangerous place for all of us. Reclaiming America's moral leadership was what Mr. Obama himself called it, and moral leadership is a fine thing indeed - Europeans in particular are great ones for reaching the moral high ground. But reclaiming moral leadership is nowhere as difficult to attain as keeping a nation safe from crazed Islamist fanatics, as the new U.S. president will soon find.
European leaders lost no time claiming the credit for Mr. Obama's decision. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said that closing Guantanamo is a move "which Spain and Europe have demanded." So did German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who told the BBC: "Germany belongs to the group of countries like the UK who demanded closure of Guantanamo. It's a question of credibility. Its closure is necessary for the USA, especially if the U.S. wants to restore its credibility in the Middle East and in the Arab world." At least Mr. Steinmeier offered to help with the detainees (an offer that was notably never extended to the Bush administration): "If Europeans are asked, we should not rule out helping." U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay praised Mr. Obama for making the closure of Guantanamo Bay a priority and for caring about the fundamental rights of its detainees, who have not had court appointed lawyers and Miranda rights read to them, poor things.
Fortunately for Mr. Obama, words in this case do speak louder than actions. For Mr. Obama, the issue of Guantanamo Bay is red meat to be thrown to his liberal supporters, who have been getting more and more restless. When he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" that he thought Gitmo might be closed within his first term, liberal alarm bells went off. So now the president is on record as per executive order that it will happen within a year, or at least "as soon as practicable." It is not very clear, though, how much the president is in command of his own policy. During Friday's signing ceremony, Mr. Obama appeared not to know that he would be signing four separate orders and had to refer repeatedly to White House Legal Counsel Greg Craig for answers to questions from the media. Nor was he able to answer a question about the future of the detainees. For the Obama White House, closing Gitmo is essentially a symbolic action.
(One order related to the actual closing of Guantanamo and what to do with the detainees. One addressed the issue of future detainees. One made the Army Field Manual the standard by which interrogations should be conducted and closed the CIA "secret prisons" that caused such consternation in Europe. And one dealt with the Ali Al-Marri case, a U.S. resident who is in detention in Charleston.) But symbols are undeniably important in foreign affairs, as they are in all walks of life. Gitmo, interrogation techniques, secret prisons - these have been some of the worst irritants in the relations between the United States and its allies. As has often been the case, the United States did the dirty work, while the Europeans got to claim moral superiority by denouncing U.S. actions.
Well, Mr. Obama has learned from their example and taken a step towards reclaiming that ground. Here's hoping that he is enjoying the glow of the moment, for it will only last until the first of the released terrorists strikes and kills again.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times