Seeking a Foreign-Policy Legacy, Obama Goes It Alone

On Guantanamo and other issues, the president has to decide whether he will let Congress stand in his way.

President Obama speaks to members of the media as he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Monday.  (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Obama is in legacy overdrive.

In the course of about a month, the administration has rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, moved to close down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and struck one of the largest trade agreements ever, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With only a year left in his reign, Obama is looking to do whatever he can on his own, but he faces hurdles both in Congress and the courts.

Take closing down the Guantanamo Bay detention center, a goal ostensibly shared by Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush. After weeks of debate, the Senate voted 91 to 3 Tuesday to pass a $607 billion defense spending bill that funnels money to essential military programs, but also blocks the president from moving forward with a 2008 campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay once and for all. The president’s signature on the bill would stop him from transferring inmates from the island prison to the U.S. mainland, but the White House is also toying with another gonzo option: signing the bill and moving forward on closing Guantanamo unilaterally. Even Republicans who want to close the base are furious that the administration would try to trump the legislative branch again.

“Of course it’s not in his authority,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain. “There’s a line in the defense authorization bill that prohibits him from doing so.”

When asked what Republicans’ recourse might be, McCain said, “Go to court! Go to court. That’s all we can do.”

An executive action to close down Gitmo would continue a signature trend of the Obama White House: When faced with opposition from Congress, Obama acts alone.

In prior years, Obama has moved in the domestic sphere. On immigration, the president elected to shield so-called child “Dreamers” and then their parents from deportation. (The latest executive action is still tied up in courts as the president enters his final year in the White House.) And on gun control, the president has also used his pen to sign more than 20 executive actions. But with the presidential election shifting to the foreground and domestic-agenda items slipping out of reach, the commander in chief has turned to the arena where the executive branch traditionally exerts the most influence: foreign policy.

Last month, Obama announced he would keep nearly 10,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan through most of 2016. Once the candidate who promised to end the war in Afghanistan, Obama has found himself unable to fulfill that pledge as the Taliban has reemerged in the country.

And, in Iraq and Syria, the president has struggled to find a strategy to defeat ISIS, but at the very least he has drafted a new legal justification, known as an Authorization for Use of Military Force, for the new enemy, in the absence of congressional compromise. The president announced at the end of October that he would send up to 50 special-forces troops to Syria to assist in the fight against ISIS, which was widely viewed as violating a pledge not to deploy boots on the ground in the country.

“This is so typical. Congress complains that the president doesn’t give us the constitutional right we have to make a decision and then when he hands it to us, we say, ’No, not now.’ I have seen it time and time again,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois.

Last week, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, positioning the U.S. ahead of global climate talks later this month in Paris. The politically symbolic move, along with previously securing a major climate deal with China and releasing the finalized Clean Power Plan limiting carbon pollution from power plants, could help the U.S. reach a legacy-defining agreement to slow global warming at the U.N. talks.

And on Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest reiterated the president’s commitment to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

“The president believes closing that prison is a national security priority,” Earnest said.

The Pentagon’s plan to close Guantanamo Bay is expected in upcoming days, but according to leaked reports, the administration is looking at transferring prisoners to facilities in Colorado, Kansas, or South Carolina. The news has attracted the ire of Republican senators from those states who argue moving prisoners could make their home states targets of terrorism.

“I have made it very clear that if the president would get off his legacy horse, it would be a good thing,” Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas told reporters. “It just doesn’t add up. I don’t think it adds up at any one of the facilities.”

But dealing those blows to Republicans on Gitmo, Keystone, and elsewhere deepens the mistrust that makes it difficult for Obama to achieve other goals—particularly congressional ratification of TPP, which even pro-trade Republicans have criticized for its inclusion of stronger labor and weaker intellectual-property standards than they preferred. Obama’s last major push may very well be trying to get Congress to pass TPP, which was signed by 11 other countries lined around the Pacific Rim, over the concerns of everyone from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.