How will Arabs judge Obama’s Gitmo policy?

 Yesterday afternoon, I joined a small number of al-Qaeda experts at the Department of Justice for a long meeting with President Obama’s Detention Policy Task Force. I don’t envy their job of trying to figure out how to untangle the myriad political, legal, and security issues which the Bush administration dumped in their lap. Under ...

 Yesterday afternoon, I joined a small number of al-Qaeda experts at the Department of Justice for a long meeting with President Obama's Detention Policy Task Force. I don't envy their job of trying to figure out how to untangle the myriad political, legal, and security issues which the Bush administration dumped in their lap. Under the house rules, I won't discuss any of the actual deliberations of the task force meetings, but I am free to offer some of my own thoughts on the matter.

 I'm not a lawyer, and I can't speak about the perplexing legal issues surrounding this debate. But I do have some thoughts on the impact of Obama's choices on Guantanamo and detention policy on his wider strategy for the Middle East. How Guantanamo policy affects al-Qaeda's propaganda, mainstream Muslim opinion, and assessments of Obama's credibility may not be the most important considerations for the policy, but they certainly should factor in to the decision. If Obama gets the decision right, it could have a major positive effect in responding to the most persistent ongoing Arab critique of his administration -- that it has not matched its words with deeds. And if he gets it wrong, it could have a devastating symbolic effect on his credibility in the region far beyond its objective significance.

 I wouldn't pose the question here in terms of al-Qaeda itself. I don't think that his decision will have much effect one way or the other on al-Qaeda as an organization, its views of the U.S., or its strategy. It will continue to use Guantanamo as a feature of its propaganda and rhetoric no matter what Obama decides. The real question is whether those arguments gain traction beyond the tiny (albeit dangerous) salafi-jihadist core and help al-Qaeda to regain credibility and support with parts of the Arab and Muslim mainstream (which, as I've argued elsewhere, it has largely lost over the last year or two).

 Yesterday afternoon, I joined a small number of al-Qaeda experts at the Department of Justice for a long meeting with President Obama’s Detention Policy Task Force. I don’t envy their job of trying to figure out how to untangle the myriad political, legal, and security issues which the Bush administration dumped in their lap. Under the house rules, I won’t discuss any of the actual deliberations of the task force meetings, but I am free to offer some of my own thoughts on the matter.

 I’m not a lawyer, and I can’t speak about the perplexing legal issues surrounding this debate. But I do have some thoughts on the impact of Obama’s choices on Guantanamo and detention policy on his wider strategy for the Middle East. How Guantanamo policy affects al-Qaeda’s propaganda, mainstream Muslim opinion, and assessments of Obama’s credibility may not be the most important considerations for the policy, but they certainly should factor in to the decision. If Obama gets the decision right, it could have a major positive effect in responding to the most persistent ongoing Arab critique of his administration — that it has not matched its words with deeds. And if he gets it wrong, it could have a devastating symbolic effect on his credibility in the region far beyond its objective significance.

 I wouldn’t pose the question here in terms of al-Qaeda itself. I don’t think that his decision will have much effect one way or the other on al-Qaeda as an organization, its views of the U.S., or its strategy. It will continue to use Guantanamo as a feature of its propaganda and rhetoric no matter what Obama decides. The real question is whether those arguments gain traction beyond the tiny (albeit dangerous) salafi-jihadist core and help al-Qaeda to regain credibility and support with parts of the Arab and Muslim mainstream (which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it has largely lost over the last year or two).

Who is the relevant public? The broad mainstream of Arabs and Muslims, who are generally hostile to U.S. foreign policy and suspicious of American motives, but are tentatively hopeful that Obama will change it in a positive direction. This broad middle has little sympathy with Al-Qaeda’s salafi-jihadist agenda, but shares much of its critique of U.S. foreign policy. It tends to watch al-Jazeera and to identify with its framing of core Arab issues (especially during moments of crisis), supports the idea of resistance (muqawima) but is outraged about terrorism (especially where there are Muslim victims), backed Hezbollah in 2006, suffered over Gaza in 2009, and came to be convinced during the Bush years that the U.S. was waging a war with Islam.

 Guantanamo has for many long years been a key symbolic node in that shared narrative. While the U.S. debate usually focuses on the "worst of the worst", the Arab discourse generally focuses on people viewed as innocent and unjustly detained — such as the al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj. This epitomized in their eyes all that was wrong with Bush’s war on terror. It helps that Guantanamo can now be portrayed as the stuff of the past, a sin to be redeemed. But this in turn plays into one of the most prominent themes in current Arab political discourse: that Obama’s attractive words have not yet been matched by deeds, and that he hasn’t really changed anything significant about U.S. policy.

 And that credibility issue is really the key which the policy review needs to keep in mind. For all their hope, and all the buzz around the Cairo speech, this Arab mainstream remains deeply skeptical that Obama will actually be able to deliver on his promised change. Popular Arab media will feature intense and skeptical scrutiny of every American move, will leap on every report in the American media, every hint of backtracking or hypocrisy. The two most prominent focal points for this scrutiny are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Guantanamo — and U.S. credibility will be especially hurt by new information which fits into this narrative of Obama offering words but not deeds. This places a very high premium on establishing credibility through deeds.

 The policy needs to be clear and bold to have the desired impact. The Arab public will not carefully assess the details of a particular plan. Instead, they will form impressions based on a fairly crude binary judgment: is Obama keeping his promise or not? Artful attempts to slice the problem with carefully calibrated dodges will likely fail. The skepticism is so high that anything other than a crystal clear closure of Guantanamo will register on the wrong side of that binary. And because of the symbolic prominence of the Guantanamo issue, and the high priority Obama himself has given it in his outreach to the Muslim world, failure there will have serious spill-over effects for credibility on all other issues in the region.

 The plan, no matter how well-conceived, will not speak for itself. The U.S. needs to not only select a policy which is clear and robust enough to defy hostile spin, but also have an aggressive, ongoing, strategic communications campaign ready to go on day one explaining the policy. This campaign should use it as a lever to respond to the “words/deeds” critique and to establish credibility. The images of a joyful release of many of the detainees — combined with the prosecution of the genuine al-Qaeda bad guys like KSM — would offer a powerful graphic demonstration of Obama’s commitment to make meaningful distinctions between the real extremists and the rest. Ideally, it would result in al-Jazeera programs and editorials by influential authors to the effect of "we didn’t believe that Obama would actually deliver, but he did" — which would have positive externalities across a wide range of issues.

 Like I said above, the impact on the Arab and Muslim arenas may not be the most important part of the decision about detention policy. Legal or security or ethical issues may weigh more heavily. But the decision will have a significant impact on these strategic issues whether or not the administration prioritizes them. I hope they get it right.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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