Is Gitmo Really an Important Recruiting Tool or Do We All Just Say That?

By Benjamin Wittes
Saturday, September 11, 2010, 1:09 PM

Spencer Ackerman makes a thoughtful point in response to Jack's oped:

Goldsmith is totally, totally right that the GTMO-North alternative makes the closure of Guantanamo “symbolic.” I made a similar point to a colleague at the Khadr trial. And then she said something that blew my mind: Yes, but symbols matter. What will it mean for al-Qaeda recruitment if GTMO stays open?

I resisted that point for as long as I possibly could. It seems so much like a cop-out. Symbolism should never trump substance! Thomson, with its indefinite detentions and military commissions, will just become the new symbol — and in the United States, no less! But I had to conclude my colleague was right. Symbols really are important. As journalists, it’s our responsibility to separate the symbols from the substance and to challenge both. But policies that lend themselves to misunderstanding will ultimately be untenable (see: the July 2011 “deadline” for “transition” in Afghanistan). I sympathize deeply with Goldsmith on this point — really, I do — but it’s worth acknowledging that the net costs to the U.S. for keeping Guantanamo open are significant, however much they stem from a symbol.

Ackerman and his anonymous colleague here are reflecting a common meme in both press and administration thinking on the necessity of Guantanamo's closure: Guantanamo is, uniquely among U.S. detention sites, a recruiting bonanza for the enemy, so even in the absence of any substantive change in U.S. detention policy, shuttering it would deprive Al Qaeda of a big argument against us.

I have one question: Is this really true or is it just something we've repeated so many times that we all now take it as true?

I do not pretend to know the answer to this question. But I have never seen especially compelling evidence that Guantanamo is driving Al Qaeda recruitment. It will not do to cite the occasional, or even frequent, appearance of Guantanamo in Al Qaeda recruitment videos. That just means that Guantanamo is currently the most visible symbol of U.S. detention policy. Close it and rebuild it somewhere else, and that somewhere else will be the most visible symbol of U.S. detention policy.

I have no doubt that Guantanamo stokes a great deal of anti-U.S. feeling among European and Middle Eastern elites. The obsessive attention paid to it by European media never ceases to astonish me. And the word "Guantanamo" and its associated images certainly show up as part of the all-t00-familiar litany of U.S. misdeeds invoked by critics of American policy in the Arab and Muslim worlds. But members of the European media, let's face it, are not prime targets of Al Qaeda recruiting. And I somehow doubt that Guantanamo is really that much higher up on the list of genuine worldwide Muslim grievances against America than its replacement facility would be? In other words, I'm skeptical that we would really reduce Guantanamo's salience if we closed it without freeing the people we are holding there?

Yes, symbols are important, but closing Guantanamo is not simply eliminating a symbol. It is replacing one symbol with another. And what would our new symbol be? Well, as Ackerman acknowledges, it would be a lot like Guantanamo only without some unpleasant history and with an added element: The idea that we're fooling people into thinking we're out of the detention business, when we are, in fact, just moving the operation northwards. It would be the same symbol laced with the insinuation that we think the world is made up of morons who won't notice or care if a president not named Bush conducts indefinite detentions at a facility not named Guantanamo Bay.

I treat at length in this essay and in this forthcoming short book the question of what the promise to close Guantanamo really means. Not being a particular scholar of Al Qaeda or terrorist messaging, I have not sought to evaluate whether the factual predicate of the entire endeavor is really accurate. But I do wonder. As I have said many times, I have no particular commitment to Guantanamo and would be happy to see it closed. But I don't think we should close it for the sake of flattering a myth. And so I ask: What do we really know about the importance of Guantanamo to enemy recruitment?