Keeping Guantanamo open is a long-term strategic error

Keeping Guantanamo open is a long-term strategic error

In his state of the union address, President Trump announced that he is ordering the US military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to remain open. This risks further worsening relations with key Arab and European allies while providing a recruitment incentive for lone-wolf terrorists and other non-state actors.

Guantanamo Bay has been a sore spot for US foreign policy and national security since its use began as part of the ongoing War on Terror. It remains an inspiration and recruitment tool for jihadist organisations around the world, who view the site as a symbol of US neo-imperial ambitions stemming from the war in Iraq and as part of a broader war being waged against the Muslim community.

President Obama tried to close the facility, but Trump pledged to keep it open during his campaign and increase the prison population of suspected ISIS and Al-Qaeda leaders captured from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Now that ISIS has lost nearly all of its territory in Iraq and Syria, foreign fighters will likely start to return home and continue to wage their campaigns against the US on its own soil and those of its allies in Western Europe.

The symbolism of keeping Guantanamo Bay open as long as the threat of ISIS and radical Islamist terrorism persists will likely please elements of President Trump’s base, but its long term impact is likely to be negative for the US’ domestic security and foreign alliances.

The Trump National Security Strategy

President Trump has pledged to be tough on borders, crime and illegal immigration, as well as in his response to terrorist groups like ISIS, and Guantanamo Bay symbolizes many of the core themes of his campaign and platform in one location. A harsh, isolated and unforgiving place, it has made headlines for allegations of torture and hunger strikes by detainees over their mistreatment, as well as the fact that many inmates have not been charged and may not be affiliated with any terrorist groups. Only 5 percent of Guantanamo’s inmates were captured on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many were not caught directly by the United States, rather by warlords or neighbors in local villages, risking a disproportionate amount of civilians and non-enemy combatants caught in the crossfire.

The executive order signed by Trump states that detention practices at the base are “legal, safe, humane, and conducted consistent with United States and international law”. Constitutional rights lawyers have been quick to denounce the move as reckless and un-informed. Defense Secretary Mattis will provide policy recommendations to Trump regarding transferring individuals to Guantanamo, of which 41 men are still in custody with five men approved to be transferred out of the facility. Who exactly will fill the remaining cells remains to be seen, but given the Trump administration’s hawkish approach to borders, immigration and terrorism, it is possible that the facility will go beyond its original mandate and perhaps be used to detain criminal gang members from groups such as MS-13, a group President Trump has frequently singled out for targeting law abiding citizens and terrorizing American communities.

Undermining global ties

With the Pew Research Center showing a significant drop in global public trust towards President Trump compared with President Obama, the move to keep Guantanamo Bay open is unlikely to send those numbers in a more positive direction. Russia and Israel were the only outliers among the 37 nations polled for Pew’s survey, and Trump’s closest allies in the Middle East such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to voice strong opposition towards the move.

The largest rifts will continue to be with traditional democratic allies in Europe, namely France and Germany, who opposed the Iraq War to begin with. President Macron of France has shown that he is willing to voice criticism of President Trump on everything from relations with African nations to disagreements over climate change, and Chancellor Merkel will likely follow suit.

A raison d’etre for extremist groups

Among non-state actors, however, the order to keep Guantanamo Bay open will likely signal to extremist groups such as ISIS and even some moderate Muslim nations that the United States continues to be in a war against Islam that is bolstered by a clash of civilizations worldview. In this respect, President Trump is not too dissimilar from President Bush in deciding to go to war in Iraq, when he used language such as ‘axis of evil’ and ‘you are either with us or against us’ to describe the Manichean nature of the alleged fight for freedom and liberty among democratic nations.

The rhetoric of President Trump and the desire to resurrect the facility, coupled with distrust in American institutions by both US citizens and those of other nations, combines to form a troubling gray zone, one likely to be filled by extremist groups such as ISIS that can find a new sense of purpose in Trump’s latest actions.

Categories: North America, Security

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.