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Post Leadership
Posted at 10:19 AM ET, 04/25/2011

The Guantanamo closure promise: Where Obama fell short

President Obama’s campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay has yet to be fulfilled. (SHANE T. MCCOY - AFP)
The release by WikiLeaks of classified military documents that assess almost all of the 779 people who have been held at Guantanamo Bay since 2002 has revived an underlying question about the existence of the detainment facility itself. Why is Guantanamo still open? The president promised to close it in campaign speech after campaign speech. He signed an executive order in January of 2009 calling for it to be discontinued.

But as the Post’s Peter Finn and Anne Kornblut recount in a lengthy investigation into why Obama’s Guantanamo closure promise hasn’t been fulfilled, the administration’s efforts were “undermined by political miscalculations, confusion and timidity in the face of mounting congressional opposition.” The failure reflects the things about “Obama’s leadership style that continue to distress his liberal base.” Finn and Kornblut write—“a willingness to allow room for compromise and a passivity that at times permits opponents to set the agenda.”

As detailed in the account, it’s hard not to see that the administration was stymied by these issues. (A White House spokesperson told Finn and Kornblut that “any claim that the White House didn’t fight to close Guantanamo is just flat wrong.”) There was an apparent lack of leadership, for one: White House counsel Gregory B. Craig was assumed to be in charge, but he said in an interview that “there was a real serious problem of coordination in this whole thing,” saying that no one was really organizing the effort. The report says the administration turned timid in the face of Congressional opposition, backing away from its initial move to resettle 17 Chinese Muslims after news leaked to Rep. Frank Wolf’s office in Northern Virginia, which created a stir over the move. And attempts to move the trials of detainees to federal courts in the U.S. ran up against potentially high security costs, declining public opinion and negotiations with key senators that withered on the vine.

According to this report, there’s little question that certain aspects of the president’s leadership style played a role in the effort’s end. But while another key cause—competing priorities—is mentioned, I’d guess it played an even bigger role in the administration’s failure. The enormity of any president’s job means initial priorities will be back-burnered, new crises will replace old ones and, without exception, campaign promises will be broken. The administration’s focus on health-care reform, in particular, as well as the tremendous economic pressures faced during 2009 and 2010, created an environment in which it was impossible for some issues not to lose momentum.

I’m not trying to make excuses for the president. A promise is a promise, and one of the hallmarks of good leaders is their ability to direct their organizations’ energies to a multitude of priorities all at the same time. From the outside, it’s understandable how Guantanamo would be seen as another example of the president’s passivity.

But it is also a reality of leadership that with so many competing priorities, some things will inevitably lose momentum and the sense of urgency so essential for getting traction for efforts of this magnitude will lose steam. While the most influential energy and pressure can only come from the very top, there is also no way one individual, no matter how great a leader, can be on top of every initiative at all times. Deputizing someone to coordinate the effort would have created accountability and structure, and given the task real teeth. To me, Obama’s failure with the Guantanamo effort was not so much one of a willingness to compromise but, apparently, a failure to delegate true responsibility and accountability.

More from On Leadership:

Adm. Thad Allen on lessons from the Gulf disasters

Debt ceiling: When it’s time to break a promise

Where Obama’s budget leadership fell short

By  |  10:19 AM ET, 04/25/2011

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