Washington Post writers Peter Finn and Anne Kornblut recently examined the Obama administration’s vexations toward closing down the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. The article cites lack of leadership, legislative restrictions, and legal hurdles in the administration’s slow reversal of its plan to try detainees in civilian court.
Public opinion should be added to the list of obstacles. Although President Obama recently told AP that he doesn’t plan to “stop making the case” to close the prison, he may have missed his opportunity in ensuring public support. Polling shows that the high-water mark for approval of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison was in early 2009, at the beginning of his presidency. Over the last two years, opinions have shifted to favoring keeping the facility open. In February 2009, a plurality of 46 percent told Pew pollsters that they approved of Obama’s decision to close the military prison. Thirty-nine percent disapproved. By November 2009, only 39 percent approved and nearly half, 49 percent, disapproved. While new polling on the issue has been scarce, 67 percent approved the administration’s decision of “keeping open the prison at Guantanamo Bay for terrorist suspects” in an April 2011 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
It probably doesn’t come as much surprise that people are paying little attention to the issue. Only 16 percent told Pew in March 2011 that they were paying a lot of attention to “President Obama’s decision to allow military trials of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.” Back in February 2009, 57 percent said they were paying a lot of attention to Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo in a year.
Recent polling has shown that Americans favor military tribunals over civilian trials. In a January 2010 Quinnipiac poll, a solid majority, 59 percent, preferred “trying people suspected of involvement in terrorists attacks” in “a closed military court with a military judge.” Thirty-four percent preferred an open criminal court.
A driving factor behind the shift in attitudes, as the Post article cites, is that people don’t want the prisoners in the United States. A January 2010 Fox News question, which asked respondents to assume that Guantanamo was closed, found that a majority (58 percent) wouldn’t want the prisoners to be transferred to the United States. Only a third were in favor of transfer. Given these strong public reservations, it seems that Obama has quite an uphill battle ahead if he still plans to close the prison.