Last week, President Barack Obama ordered prosecutors in all Guantanamo Bay detainee trials to request that proceedings be halted immediately.
In Ottawa, the lines of communication between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defense Minister Peter MacKay seem to have gotten crossed in the hours after the Obama administration’s announcement.
Speaking to the media after word of the 120-day pause on all Guantanamo detainee proceedings, MacKay conceded that the American move would force everyone involved to re-evaluate their positions on the detainees, their trials and their possible repatriation.
Not long after MacKay hinted at a shift in the Conservative government’s position on the question of bringing Omar Khadr back to Canada, a Harper spokesman reiterated the government’s familiar refrain: Khadr faces serious charges and it must be a judicial process, not a political one, that determines his fate.
But if Obama makes good on his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, the already highly politicized judicial process involving Khadr might become purely political.
Although it appears less and less likely to ever happen, Harper continues to insist that Khadr be tried under American law. Being forced to accept his repatriation would be an embarrassment to Harper and the Conservative party. It would also allow the American government to dictate Canadian policy.
Neither is likely to sit well with Harper, who has the ability to complicate Obama’s agenda in key areas, such as energy and the economy. Harper may not be able to block Khadr from returning home, but he can make forcing repatriation on Canada a costly move.
For his part, Obama has high expectations to live up to. He campaigned on lofty promises of dramatic change. Now, people around the world are hoping to see that change during his time in office. But change that simply shifts responsibility for cleaning up the messes left behind by the Bush administration on to other nations isn’t likely to play well, especially abroad.
The challenge for Obama is to deliver real, substantive change. Passing Khadr off to Canada and allowing the US to wash its hands of the Guantanamo mess won’t make Obama or his country any friends.
All things considered, it might have been best for Harper’s spokesman to let MacKay’s statement stand. With every day that passes, the likelihood of Khadr being returned to Canada increases. Softening his position on the issue now may allow Harper to save some face if Khadr is returned to Canada in the future.