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A more patient look at closing Guantanamo

An end to the Guantanamo impasse is likely to be years away. Among other efforts, more attention must be paid to rehabilitating these men so that when and if their freedom is won they don't return to violence.

Promises from the stump are hard to make good on in the swamp. This is a fact of political life in America and elsewhere. But on some issues, soaring rhetoric must be backed with strong action. Guantanamo Bay is one such problem.

The US president Barack Obama used his first day in office to pledge closure of the controversial detention facility within a year. That was two nearly years ago. Today, Mr Obama appears more willing to blame partisanship for the delay than his own administration. "It's not for lack of trying," he told reporters recently. "It's because the politics of it are difficult."

Mr Obama was wrong to promise a 12-month closure. He should admit as much and move on. More importantly, he should shoulder the political burden that relocating prisoners will demand. Guantanamo Bay is not only a stain on the US, but a rallying cry for Islamic radicals that leaves the entire world, and especially the Middle East, more vulnerable.

There are many reasons why prisoners are still languishing in Cuba. For one, the US has so far failed to devise a prosecution approach that passes muster with human rights groups, legal scholars, and judges. This week's decision by Britain to pay off 16 former detainees, rather than slog through a damages trial brought by the men, illustrates the challenges of using civilian courts, as Mr Obama prefers to do. The trouble is that alternatives - from secret hearings to doing nothing - are even more unattractive.

Washington should not have to carry the burden of closing Guantanamo on its own. Of the 174 prisoners remaining, nearly half are Yemenis, by far the largest group. Many of these are low-level fighters that have been cleared for transfer to prisons in their own country, but remain in US custody because of concerns about Yemen's justice system. If Sana'a is serious about targeting extremism, and securing US aid in the process, it must address these shortfalls and win the world's confidence.

Non-Yemeni prisoners have also been cleared for transfer, but fears that they will be tortured if sent home have kept them put. If countries like Algeria, China, Libya, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan won't provide assurances, third parties may have to step up. After all, many prisoners were captured in Afghanistan, a war endorsed by the UN.

An end to the Guantanamo impasse is likely to be years away. Among other efforts, more attention must be paid to rehabilitating these men so that when and if their freedom is won they don't return to violence. But the first step to closure is for the US administration to do what is long overdue: pair its promises with what's possible.

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