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Column: Obama versus Congress on Guantanamo

By Nicholas Wapshott

(Reuters) - Barely a week after Margaret Thatcher's funeral in London, her ghost is stalking the corridors of power.

At his press conference on Tuesday in Washington, President Barack Obama was asked about Guantánamo Bay prisoners refusing to eat. In doing so, the veteran CBS reporter Bill Plante, who asked the question, exposed a running sore in the Obama administration. He also invited direct comparison between Obama and Lady Thatcher - who faced a similar dilemma in 1981.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama, a distinguished Harvard-educated legal scholar known in the Senate for his common sense and humanity, promised to quickly close the prison for 166 terrorist suspects in the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The existence of a U.S. detention center that ignores the basic legal right of habeas corpus and the failure to bring prisoners to trial after so many years "erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles," he said. He went on to repeat his pledge, yet five years on, Gitmo is still open for business.

The president's embarrassment can be blamed, in part, on his naïveté. For a while after his inauguration in 2009 he appeared to be under the impression he had been elected the most powerful man on earth. It has taken four painful years for him to realize that the division of government guaranteed by the Constitution prevents him from doing not only what he wishes but what a majority of Americans have mandated.

Under the guise of saving money, Congress has stymied the president's plan to try those believed guilty of terrorist offenses on U.S. soil and to release the 86 innocents who have been held without trial for years. Despite their insistence that they believe in America's system of justice, it appears that many congressmen have little faith in it.

About a month ago the Gitmo detainees started taking matters into their own hands. Using passive resistance methods championed by Mahatma Gandhi, they decided en masse to stop eating.

This is not the first hunger strike at Gitmo, but it is the largest and most concerted. Of the 166 Gitmo inmates, 100 are refusing food. These include many of the 86 detainees who, according to a task force of CIA, FBI and Pentagon officials, are not terrorist risks and should be let free without charges, as well as some of the 46 the task force said were dangerous and should be detained indefinitely.

This time, the prisoners insist, they are going to get a result. America must decide whether to try them, free them or allow them to die.

Obama's dilemma is that he is responsible for holding the prisoners, yet he dearly wants to bring to a swift end one of the most troubling episodes in the history of U.S. justice. But a quick fix is not in his gift. Unless he can find a solution, he is condemned to spend the next few weeks watching 100 prisoners trying to starve themselves to death. When he told the White House press corps, "I don't want these individuals to die," he meant every word, for the majority of them are blameless and would die under American supervision in barely legal captivity.

What has Thatcher to do with Obama's predicament? In 1981 she faced a similar problem with imprisoned Irish republican terrorists, many of them tried and convicted of acts of vicious terrorism and mass murder. Looking for an issue with which to embarrass the British government, the killers went on a hunger strike over whether they should be termed "political" prisoners or common criminals.

Using the intransigence that was her stock-in-trade, Thatcher refused to compromise. After six grueling months, the fasting was called off. By then, 10 IRA terrorists had starved to death. Thatcher appeared to have won her point. It seemed the rule of law had been restored and the terrorists roundly defeated.

Obama has little to learn from Thatcher's obstinacy. There may be terrorists among those now on hunger strike at Gitmo, but about half are already deemed free to leave - if only the administration could find a country to take them. The hunger strikers are not bringing pressure to bear on Congress, which is capable, if it wished, of quickly resolving many issues involved. Instead, the president, pinned between his own base, the obstructive members of Congress and 100 men willing to commit suicide, is feeling the heat.

He must know, however, that Thatcher's example, painted at the time as another display of the Iron Lady's indomitable resolution, was politically ruinous. The Irish deaths dragged on for months, with weeping mothers making last-minute interventions to prevent their sons from killing themselves. Each death was met with violent demonstrations by thousands on the streets of Northern Ireland.

Some now suggest that, rather than bolster British rule, the Irish hunger strikers helped advance the republican cause.

The process of trying to save those who are determined to starve themselves to death is not pretty. Nor is the emaciated state of those in their final days of life. Keeping someone from death by force-feeding them is disgusting and barely ethical. The strikers know, as did the Irish terrorists, that it is by attracting publicity, however horrifying, that they may find a solution to their woes.

By trying to kill themselves in the full glare of the press, they are humanizing a problem that many in Washington had hoped would be quietly forgotten. The worse the physical condition of those refusing food, the more pressure will be put on the administration to end the misery.

When the first death is followed by a second, then a third and a fourth, you would have to be a Thatcher to defy the public's anguished reaction to such needless, pointless death.

The asymmetric warfare used by terrorist organizations like al Qaeda has brought to the fore suicide as a weapon of maximum impact. The September 11 hijackers, armed with promises about the carnal delights of the life hereafter, were prepared to kill themselves. The Irish terrorists, whose murderous attacks on civilians were cowardly, found some sense of valor in taking their own lives in a British jail. Little wonder, then, that suicide has become the weapon of choice for last-ditch terrorists. It makes soft targets indefensible and normal life difficult ‑ and instant martyrs out of those who volunteer to die.

By preventing justice from being done at Gitmo, members of Congress are undermining the American values of democracy and decency they affect to admire and that terrorists so despise. Denying prisoners a trial draws attention to the torturous techniques employed by allied forces to obtain "intelligence" during George W. Bush's "war on terror," fans the embers of resentment against us and subverts America's reputation for fairness and justice.

Obama's problem is trying to separate in the public mind the 86 wholly innocent detainees slated for release, who simply demand justice, and the handful of terrorists who would rather commit suicide than spend their lives in a maximum security prison in the United States.

By advocating on behalf of the Gitmo detainees, the president runs the risk of being painted as soft on terrorism. But by failing to address the Gitmo issue, he shows the full extent of his impotence. Elected twice on a clear program of reform, he is being held hostage by a Congress that thinks a majority in the House and a third of senators is enough to ignore the public will and bring government to a standstill.

The Gitmo prisoners are the latest victims caught in the cross fire of a broken system of government. One thing is certain: Thatcher would not have put up with it for a second.

(Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

(Nicholas Wapshott is the former New York bureau chief of The Times of London. Previously, he was editor of the Saturday Times of London, and founding editor of The Times Magazine. He is a regular broadcaster on MSNBC, PBS, and FOX News. He is the author of "Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage" (2007). His "Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics" was published by W.W.Norton in October.)

(Nicholas Wapshott)

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