Palau agreed to accept 17 Chinese Muslims who have languished in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay, indicating a resolution to one of the major obstacles to closing the U.S. prison camp.
The announcement Wednesday by the Pacific archipelago, which would clear the last of the Uighurs from the camp in Cuba, was a major step toward the Obama administration's goal of finding new homes for detainees who have been cleared of wrongdoing but cannot go home for fear of ill-treatment.
The U.S. feared the minority Uighurs would be tortured or executed as Islamic separatists if returned to China, but the Obama administration faced fierce congressional opposition to allowing them on U.S. soil as free men. The men were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001, but the Pentagon determined that they were not "enemy combatants."
The Uighers were becoming a very thorny situation. The administration, and in fact the previous one, had determined that the Uighers were neither a threat to the U.S. nor were there any crimes they could be charged with. So, the Obama administration needed to figure out what to do with them quickly. China wanted them badly, the Uighers are separatists from China, but that was likely so they could be tortured and imprisoned. No one else was taking them and the idea of settling them in the U.S. was well...unsettling.
So comes along the tiny Pacific island of Palau. The president, Johnson Toribiong, calls this a "humanitarian gesture, but in reality it is financial decision. President Obama paid the island $200 million to take them. To put this into perspective, their entire GDP was $165 million in 2008. So, this transaction is a financial boon for the island. Furthermore, Palau doesn't recognize China and it has close ties to Taiwan, so this is geopolitical as well. (though I doubt very much that without the cash these guys would have been accepted)
This is a very shrewd move for President Obama. $200 million would go into our petty cash fund in our budget. It is more than their entire GDP. So, he has figured out a way to unload them without having to move them here.
While this is shrewd and wise, the decisions only get more difficult from here. The Uighers are relatively mild among the 200 plus residents of GITMO. Most can't be bribed to be moved into any nation. While he has figured out a way to bribe someone to take the Uighers off our hands, he isn't going to find the same kind of financial transaction for say, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. That moving the Uighers was as difficult as it was should portend for the difficulties ahead as he has the figure out what to do with those much more dangerous than these folks.