The Oval: Who's Right on Gitmo?

Standing before a crowd of journalists at the National Press Club in Washington this week, Dick Cheney seemed less than surprised that his audience's first question was about Guantanamo Bay. "I thought somebody might ask about Guantanamo today," he quipped when asked whether the prison camp was damaging America's image in the world.

His response sounded characteristically robust and carefully researched. Cheney told the story of two former detainees who returned to the battlefield in Afghanistan and were killed by Afghan and U.S. forces. Declaring the camp "an essential part of our strategy," he added: "Does this hurt us from the standpoint of international opinion? I frankly don't think so. My own personal view of it is that those who are most urgently advocating that we shut down Guantanamo probably don't agree with our policies anyway."

For all his preparation and research, the vice president must have overlooked a few salient details about Guantanamo Bay's history since the war in Afghanistan. One example: Colin Powell's frequent attempts to reform the camp in response to intense international pressure. Cheney must also have missed the lengthy negotiations with the British government as it argued that the camp and its military tribunals failed to live up to international legal standards. Needless to say, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is hardly one of those who oppose U.S. policies in the war on terror.

As early as January 2002, the Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote to President George Bush urging him to apply the Geneva Conventions to all detainees. (The administration had previously decided to rule out the Geneva Conventions, arguing the prisoners were enemy combatants--not prisoners of war--because they were not wearing uniforms on the battlefield and were loosely associated with a terrorist group that wasn't covered by Geneva.)

That same month, his British counterpart, Jack Straw, told the BBC he wanted to see British detainees returned home to face justice in the United Kingdom, not Guantanamo Bay, after photos of shackled detainees sparked widespread condemnation across the political spectrum in Britain. The British government opposed the Gitmo process so deeply that it eventually negotiated the return of its detainees earlier this year, when they were set free after initial questioning.

In 2003, after a lengthy series of exchanges between Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the administration agreed to speed up the processing of detainees at the camp (who numbered around 660 at the time, compared to around 540 today). Rumsfeld himself acknowledged that Powell--and the administration--were responding to international opinion. "Colin's job is to represent those countries into this interagency process, considering what to do with each prisoner, to see if there isn't some way we can speed that up," the Defense secretary told reporters in May 2003.

As for the vice president's perception that the Gitmo critics hate U.S. policies, it's worth revisiting some of the poll numbers in the year after 9/11. In late 2001, as many as 66 percent of Britons approved of President Bush's response to the 9/11 attacks, according to the polling group MORI. By March of 2002, after Guantanamo Bay became a lightning rod for criticism, that number was down to 50 percent. Six months later, after a summer spent debating the possibility of war in Iraq, the number was down again to 35 percent. Guantanamo Bay doesn't explain the entire decline in international opinion through 2002, but it was one of the first cracks in the wall of sympathy and unity for the United States after 9/11.

Why did the veep make such a misstatement? It might be just another symptom of the strenuous backtracking from President Bush's comments to Fox News last week. Bush appeared to entertain the option of closing down Gitmo when he said, "We're exploring all alternatives as to how best to do the main objective, which is to protect America."

That possibility was swiftly ruled out first by Rumsfeld, who said he was unaware of any such possibility last week. After Cheney's comments to the press this week, Rumsfeld followed up by insisting that the camp held "determined killers." So who was right? The White House tried to bridge both points of view on Wednesday, leaving the situation no clearer. "There are no plans, as we have said, for closing down or shutting down Guantanamo Bay at this time," said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, "but we are always looking at how best to keep America safe and how to deal with these detainees."

The Art of Diplomacy

Seven months after his re-election, President Bush continues to reward the biggest supporters of his 2004 campaign with plum overseas appointments. Last week, Bush nominated two of his campaign's leading fund-raisers to serve as his top envoys to the United Kingdom and Italy. Robert Tuttle, a California car dealer and former aide to President Reagan, was named ambassador to the U.K., while Ronald Spogli, a California financer who was Bush's classmate at Harvard Business School, was nominated to be the top diplomat in Rome.

Both men were named as Pioneers by the Bush campaign in 2004, having raised more than $100,000 for the president's re-election efforts. Spogli, who is a business associate of Bush pal and fund-raiser Brad Freeman, raised the same amount for Bush's campaign in 2000. Since January, Bush has nominated six of his campaign's $100,000-plus fund-raisers in 2004 for ambassadorships, including Craig Stapleton (Bush's cousin by marriage) as the top envoy to France, Vermont businessman Rodolphe Vallee to the Slovak Republic and former Missouri GOP chairwoman Ann Wagner to Luxembourg.

So far, roughly 30 of Bush's top fund-raisers in 2000 and 2004 have been rewarded with ambassadorships, according to Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. Overall, about one third of Bush's ambassadors have been political appointees, a number that so far ranks on par with other administrations, according to the American Foreign Service Association. Roughly 30 percent of President Clinton's ambassadors were political appointees, rather than career foreignservice officers. That number was 28 percent under Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, and 32 percent under President Reagan.

Yet even if everybody does it, Bush's political picks hasn't always been warmly accepted abroad. In April, the White House named David Wilkins, a South Carolina state representative who raised more than $200,000 for the Bush campaign in 2004, as the ambassador to Canada. His appointment made big headlines north of the border when Wilkins admitted to a Canadian reporter that he'd been to Canada just once--more than 30 years ago on a trip to Niagara Falls--and that he didn't speak French. Two weeks ago, Wilkins made the papers again, when Canadian reporters printed excerpts of his farewell speech before the South Carolina legislature in which he told lawmakers that he had accepted Bush's offer after a sign from God. A University of Toronto professor called the remarks "in your face religiosity" while a letter to the Ottawa Sun speculated that Wilkins might be a "front man for missionaries."

So far, Tuttle and Spogli haven't generated nearly as much controversy. If approved, Tuttle will fill a spot vacated nearly a year ago by Kentucky Derby owner William Farish, who left his post amid criticism that he didn't have the diplomatic skills necessary for the job. In the 1980s, Tuttle was a top assistant and personnel director to Reagan. Yet he's more famous for his philanthropic activities in California, where he is chairman of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art--a job the wealthy car dealer apparently takes very seriously. Last year, Tuttle told a reporter, "Cars are a business. I collect art."

On Monday, London's Daily Telegraph described Tuttle as "one of the more colorful foreign envoys in recent memory." Tuttle's family and interests, the paper speculated, "should help him counter the standard European stereotype of Republicans as cultural barbarians." Perhaps. But it probably won't change Europe's views on Bush and Gitmo.