Commentary: Closing Guantanamo left for someone else

The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald on Oct. 23.

The disclosure that President Bush won't shut down the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, despite his stated desire to do so, comes as no surprise — but it is still disappointing. This is one more problem that the next chief executive will inherit from the Bush administration.

Both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain say they want to close the prison. With its indefinite-detention rules, denial of due process and inherent unfairness, the prison has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Bush war on terror. The next president, however, will be so busy taming the dragons of war abroad and economic decline at home that it may be a long time before Guantanamo can be resolved.

According to an account in The New York Times, the administration has concluded that conditions are not right for closing the prison before the president leaves office. The problem is, it is unlikely those conditions will change, barring some tough decisions that this president seems loath to make.

This would include an acknowledgement that the government distorted or ignored the provisions of the Geneva Conventions in operating Guantanamo. Mr. Bush, famously reluctant to admit error, has never wanted to concede that point. Doing so, hard as it may be, however, would make it easier for other countries, including allies that have sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, to accept genuine pleas for help in resettling the remaining detainees.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that the prison "is a real liability for the United States." He added that a precondition to closing the prison is the enactment of a law that would bar inmates from emigrating to the United States.

Congress will have to step up to its obligation to help the next president find a bipartisan exit strategy for Guantanamo. This may include devising a plan to keep real terrorists in confinement without resorting to extra-legal means or violating accepted standards of treatment for inmates. That shouldn't require a provision to exclude all detainees from the United States. How can we ask other countries to accept detainees mistakenly branded as terrorists if we refuse to do so ourselves?

A good first step that the administration could take would be to halt efforts to block a lower-court order allowing the release of 17 Uighurs from China against whom the government has dropped terrorism charges. In arguing that they remain dangerous, the Justice Department is complicating efforts by the State Department to find a country other than China, where they face persecution, willing to accept them. Apparently, finding a home for the Uighurs is yet another task that this president will delegate to the next one.