A Setback Of His Own

There are no friends in politics, just interests. Some in the White House relearned that dictum this week, as their party dissolved into factions, and largely knelt down in front ofRepublican political priorities.

As usual, administration officials won't concede that the overwhelming Senate vote against funding to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay was a defeat for the president's agenda.  In Obama World, every short-term defeat is a long-term opportunity. No doubt, as press secretary Robert Gibbs repeated today, that Obama inherited a gooey situation from his predecessor, and that court rulings handed down daily force the administration to modify its position in tiny but precedent-setting increments.

But the President, and his senior advisers, bear at least some responsibility for the grand gesture of promising to shut down Guantanamo Bay within a year well before the administration had begun to review the casebooks and intelligence reports about the 240 odd detainees in United States custody.   The shrewdness of Obama's executive order on day two cannot be denied, nor can its targeted audience - European and Arab governments, and the broader world - be ignored in the current debate.  Gitmo was a "rallying cry" for Al Qaeda - that line's for public consumption - and for anti-Americanism abroad, for European smugness, for exasperation with America by Moslems everywhere.

The political imperative preceded the functional imperative, which, in the case of disposing of the detainees, means statutory changes to American law, which means that Congress must have a central say in what happens.

Already, the facts on the ground have forced Obama to change his assumptions about how the detainees will be tried. It had been the hope of administration legal advisers that a majority of the 240 - perhaps a large majority - would be tried in federal courts. Then they discovered that the evidentiary thresholds for doing so were too high given the quality of information the Bush government had collected about the detainees, and they subsequently concluded that Article III trials wouldn't be as swift as an option that they wanted to reserve for only a couple dozen high-value detainees: the military commissions.   But by the time it became clear to the administration that most of the detainees would have to have their day in military court, Republicans had already dug a moat around the Democrats, pressing them to severely limit the President's hand.  That's one reason why Harry Reid was eager to get today's vote out of the way; it prevents even more damaging amendments from reaching the floor, amendments which might have forced the administration to give up entirely on its goal of closing Guantanamo Bay.

The plain truth is that the administration fully expects to hold a number of detainees in indefinite custody within the United States. (Ironically, had Guantanamo not become a lightning rod for the world, it might have been the perfect place to build long-term detention facilities.)  European governments won't take dangerous detainees; a plan to transfer many of them to rehabilitation camps in Yemen foundered once U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Yemeni rehabbed-prisoners had a recidivism rate as high as Lindsay Lohan's.  Saudi Arabia might take some prisoners, but it won't be able to torture them, and the U.S. remains privately skeptical that they can work out a transparent enough deal.  There are no good options, as many Republicans acknowledge, including Sen. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and the politics of Guantanamo will get tougher for Democrats and Obama before they get any easier.