Leading article: Obama must keep his nerve and shut Guantanamo

Democrat senators have helped inflict his worst defeat so far

Late in his second term George W Bush, the president who opened Guantanamo Bay, finally came to understand the immense damage the extra-territorial prison for suspected terrorist detainees had done to America's standing in the world. Guantanamo, he said, should be closed. But Mr Bush warned, that was far easier said than done.

Wednesday's crushing rejection by the US Senate of the $80m requested by his successor to shut the facility, following a similar vote in the House of Representatives last week, proves, if nothing else, that the former President had a point. That Republicans should oppose the plan was no surprise. But the Democrats who contributed to the 90-6 vote, were another matter. When Mr Bush was in the White House, his opponents never let slip an opportunity to criticise the continuing existence of the prison. Now they have helped inflict on a Democratic president his most stinging defeat so far, as he seeks to implement his campaign pledge to shut Guantanamo.

The facts of the matter are unchanged. Guantanamo Bay has become a symbol of the misjudgements made during America's "war on terror" and should be closed. That goal is still within reach. Congress has not specifically forbidden Mr Obama from meeting his promise of closing the facility by next January. What it claims to object to is the lack of detailed plans as to how this should be done.

For Mr Obama the stakes could scarcely be higher. Of late he has seemed to back away from his commitment to make a clean break with the excesses of the Bush/Cheney era. The White House has announced it will fight publication of photos of US personnel conducting "enhanced interrogation techniques" on detainees, and that it will use revamped military tribunals to try alleged terrorists, a system the current president once described as irretrievably flawed. If he were now to allow Guantanamo to remain open, Mr Obama would be rightly portrayed as a weak president fearful of looking weak on security.

In his speech yesterday at the symbolic venue of the National Archives, where the original versions of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights are kept, the President moved to dispel such fears. But the practical solution to the Guantanamo conundrum – what should be done with the 240 people still held there – is indeed a complex matter. Some will be tried, others released. Acceptance by foreign countries of some of the detainees against whom no solid legal case exists will be part of the solution. By the same token however, the US itself must take some of them. Here lies the crux of the problem.

Republicans, but not only Republicans, are indulging in outrageous fear-mongering: that if these men are moved to the mainland, they will constitute an intolerable risk for the public, masterminding new 9/11s from behind the fearsome re-inforced concrete walls of a US maximum security prison. For America's politicians, a Guantanamo inmate in his state or district is as toxic a prospect as a nuclear waste storage facility.

Mr Obama must put these fears to rest. Simultaneously, he must also neutralise another factor now shaping the debate: the chronic fear of Democrats of being seen as weak on national security – the same fear that seven years ago led many of them to support Mr Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq. As both candidate and president, Mr Obama has steadfastly maintained that it is possible to keep the country safe and yet remain faithful to America's laws and ideals. Guantanamo Bay gives him a chance to prove that. It is one he cannot afford to miss.