“I think we really shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which the Bush administration damaged the image of the United States [in] the [Middle East],” said Issandr El-Amrani, publisher of a popular group of blogs on Egyptian and Middle Eastern affairs, Arabist.net. El-Amrani encouraged attendees to “be realistic about how long it will take to repair that damage” at a panel discussion on restoring U.S. credibility on democracy and human rights in the Middle East. The Center for American Progress, the Project on Middle East Democracy, and the Heinrich Boll Foundation sponsored the event, which was hosted at the Center.
Claudia Hillebrand, a professor of international politics at Aberstwyth University, and Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network joined El-Amrani on the panel. Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow the Center for American Progress, moderated the discussion.
The panelists focused on the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which remains at the forefront of conversation on the United States and human rights because of the prison’s questionable conditions and harsh interrogation techniques associated with it.
The Obama administration pledged to close the prison by January 22, 2010, but the panelists were divided on the likelihood of meeting this goal. Hurlburt predicted that Guantánamo would be closed within the year “because there is so much personal credibility riding on it,” but she also thinks “that means it will be closed in a way that makes a lot of the human rights community unhappy.” Hillebrand thought that closing the prison was a difficult task that was not likely to happen by the end of 2009.
Hurlburt and the other panelists attributed the delays in closing Guantánamo to unforeseen challenges instead of inactivity by the Obama administration. “In every instance, I think the problem has just turned out to be more complex, and—what Obama was left by his predecessors—more problematic than they had understood coming in,” said Hurlburt.
The absence of comprehensive files on detainees at Guantánamo was the first major setback for the Obama administration, according to Hurlburt, who said that the records weren’t “kept to the standards they would have been kept, for example, if we had known from the beginning that they would face civilian trials.”
Finding places to keep and try the detainees has been another obstacle to closing the base. The European Union’s adoption of an agreement on Guantánamo that allows member nations to share information and house detainees was a recent step forward on this issue. But under those provisions if a detainee were determined to be a security risk to Europe, then no member nation would be allowed to hold that detainee.
Delays to closing Guantánamo have allowed both “legitimate security concerns to arise as well as an opportunistic political opposition,” said Hurlburt, so that “you now have sort of wildly exaggerated fears coursing around the country and political figures seeking to take political advantage out of this.”
Panelists also looked at other options for improving U.S. credibility abroad. El-Amrani favored civilian trials for those in the U.S. government responsible for torture. “If I remember correctly, President Obama said, ‘Now is the time for reflection, not retribution,’” said El-Amrani, who said he disagreed with the president. “I think this is the time for retribution. I think retribution would be extremely politically effective.”
But retribution may not be the only option for restoring our image. Hurlburt advocated for a better appeal system for detainees. “The first thing to look for in any measure that the administration puts forward” is whether or not there is review built in and a way for a person to challenge his or her status, she said.
Hillebrand described the challenges of the international expectations for Obama on human rights, no matter which path the U.S. government takes in restoring its credibility. She said, “[European] expectations were probably too high, and [Obama] could never fulfill them. At the moment, I think there is a kind of rolling back” as people realize just how long this will all take.
President Obama may never meet expectations, but El-Amrani was cautiously hopeful that U.S. standing in the Middle East would improve. “[Obama] has planted a seed in the region that we will see changes,” he said.
Many human rights advocates would like to see immediate action on Guantánamo, and official detention and rendition policy changes from the Obama administration are due in July. El-Amrani explained that in the Middle East there is a trend toward a “wait-and-see” approach as that deadline approaches. “Let’s see if he can actually deliver,” he said.