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Guantánamo: Why We're Talking About It, and Why We Won't Be Able to Return It Anytime Soon

02/05/2015 09:45 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

Two distinct but ultimately inextricable controversies have swirled around U.S. foreign policy in recent days, both more or less involving Cuba.

The normalizing of relations with Havana, which had slipped from the headlines, has returned with a vengeance thanks to Raúl Castro's ever-growing list of demands, which may eventually grow to include Pres. Obama's confession that it was actually he who ordered Navy Seals to assassinate José Martí in 1895.

Specifically, Cuba's demand for the return of Guantánamo has enraged many on both the U.S. right and in Democratic circles. More importantly, Cuba's demand coincided with the onset of coverage of the still-very-far-away Republican primaries for the 2016 elections. This confluence of events has thrust Cuba onto the political front-burner, with the prospective candidates--including two Cuban-Americans and another who has long enjoyed that community's support--obliged to weigh in. But outside of the political points they may score (or not) with Cuban-American voters of a certain age, whether Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush believe we should return Guantánamo to Cuba doesn't really matter.

Why? Because the other Cuba-related controversy of the day is precisely about whether and how to close the detention center at Guantánamo. But the statements of Rubio, Cruz, and Bush on Guantánamo's possible closure have ranged from muted (Cruz) to nonexistent (Rubio and Bush). Sen. Rubio's incendiary Feb. 2 op-ed for CNN raged against Obama's steps toward normalization with Cuba, but mentioned Guantánamo only once and the detention center not at all. Sen. Cruz's Jan. 25 piece on Yemen for The Washington Times ominously declares that "Seventy-one of the 122 prisoners remaining at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility are from" that failing state. But aside from touting his Expatriate Terrorist Act, which would prohibit Americans who fought for terrorist organizations from returning to the U.S., Cruz has nothing specific to say on the question of the center's closure. Gov. Bush has also more quietly opposed the Obama Administration's Cuba policies, but has said exactly nothing about closing the detention center that Obama's predecessor--Jeb's brother, of course--opened at Guantánamo in 2002.

Perhaps the candidates' reticence is strategic. That is, maybe someone on their respective staffs has grasped that supporting "Gitmo," with its well-documented history of torture and human-rights abuses, just makes them look like complete hypocrites and/or idiots when they denounce similar violations by the Cuban government.

More likely, all three candidates understand that whatever their position, the diplomatic and political maneuvers required to relocate the remaining 122 prisoners will render the base's closure all but impossible by the end of Obama's term.

Closing Guantánamo would mean first resettling through diplomatic channels as many as possible of the 50-plus detainees who have been cleared for transfer. If Obama can get that done fairly quickly, say within a few months, he would then need congressional approval to transfer the rest into the U.S. prison system, with or without the expectation of a trial.

The administration has enjoyed some recent success in resettling detainees, but even the ones cleared of wrongdoing will be a harder diplomatic sell in this post-Charlie Hebdo environment. But the second task, getting Congress to lift the existing ban on moving detainees to the U.S., will prove all but impossible. Even if Obama were to somehow get such a measure through the Senate he would run into a buzz saw in the House, whose longstanding intransigence to anything Obama will require the president to make some major concessions that his supporters may not find palatable. And even if all of this did somehow come to pass, the timing of it would ensure that Cuba--and especially Guantánamo--would enjoy a prominence in the primaries and presidential debates well out of proportion to its actual significance for U.S. foreign policy.

This last point--that so many prominent politicians should be taking up so much air time and op-ed space, even part of a State of the Union address, on something that really matters to only a relatively small slice of the U.S. voting public--should not surprise anyone. Rubio, Cruz, and Bush III can rail against Castro's demand for Guantánamo while other candidates, such as Sen. Rand Paul, openly praise Obama's Cuban advances. But none of them needs to seriously think about any of it, because the one non-negotiable precondition for Guantánamo's return to Cuba--the closing of the detention center--isn't happening anytime soon.

That simple fact makes Cuba, and really Guantánamo itself, an ideal political football for the candidates to fight over and use to score points, safe in the knowledge that no one involved will likely ever have to actually do anything about it at all.