That’s what President Obama said yesterday at an event in Cleveland. He was waxing nostalgic about the beginning of his presidency, pondering what he would do if he could go back and do his presidency over again.
It’s appropriate that he went back to Guantanamo because his failure to close Guantanamo Bay has hung over Barack Obama’s presidency like a dark storm cloud, casting a long shadow across every move he has made at home and abroad. When he did not follow through on this essential campaign promise, Guantanamo became like festering rot at the core of his administration. He lost a great deal of trust among many of his supporters, while immediately breeding a new generation of extremist enemies in far-flung corners of the world.
It was supposed to be one of his first great acts, to get rid of this embarrassing stain on the American character. As soon as he came into office, in January 2009, President Obama signed executive orders directing the CIA to shut down its “secret” prisons and ordering the closing of the Guantánamo detention camp within a year.
But halfway through his first year in office, he had already started to back away. First he postponed all the difficult decisions on the details, such as what to do with the prisoners, for at least six months.
By March 2011, he had completely backed away, issuing an executive order that permits the ongoing indefinite detention of Guantánamo detainees.
Yesterday he explained what he was thinking at the time. He said he didn’t rush to close the military prison because there was already bipartisan agreement that it should be close—even his opponent Sen. John McCain of Arizona had also called for shutting it down.
“I thought we had enough consensus where we could do it in a more deliberate fashion,” Obama said. “But the politics of it got tough, and people got scared by the rhetoric around it. Once that set in, then the path of least resistance was just to leave it open, even though it’s not who we are as a country and it’s used by terrorists around the world to help recruit jihadists.”
The stories of torture have abounded over the years, marking the U.S. as a nation of hypocrites. America stomps around the world pointing fingers at other nations for engaging in human rights abuses while America is detaining and torturing prisoners who have never even been charged.
“We’ve had to just chip away at it year after year after year,” Obama said yesterday.
But the prison is still there, with 122 prisoners in a perpetual state of limbo. As Obama regales us with his regrets about Guantanamo, we’re essentially all in the same place, wondering how six years later we haven’t moved on.