As a former ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley has a fair bit of foreign policy experience. As vice president, Mike Pence attended some funerals and met some foreign leaders. But what about Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL)? It turns out he does have some, but it is kind of specialized. His foreign policy experience definitely does not involve going to lovely cocktail parties with other ambassadors, as Haley's does. Very little has been written about it but we suspect it will become a big issue before too long, certainly if he makes it to the general election. The Washington Post had a long article about the subject yesterday. It is worth reading since this period of DeSantis' life hasn't been put under the Big Microscope—yet.
When DeSantis graduated from Harvard law School cum laude in 2005, he could have joined a white shoe law firm, worked hard, something he is very good at, made partner in due course, and become very rich. Instead he joined the Navy as an officer in the Judge Advocate General Corps. Then he volunteered to go to a place rather different from the offices of a top law firm: the military prison at Guantánamo Bay. Around March 2006, he traveled frequently between Florida and Gitmo. His commanding officer, Capt. Patrick McCarthy, quickly realized that the young lieutenant jg was extremely sharp and not only knew military law, but could give good legal advice on many matters, so he frequently asked DeSantis for legal advice.
One issue that came up fairly quickly was what to do with the prisoners who hadn't even been charged with anything. DeSantis believed that the government had every right to imprison suspected terrorists without charges or trials. He advised his superiors accordingly. Another issue that came up quickly was what to do about hundreds of prisoners who had gone on a hunger strike. If many of them had died in U.S. custody, that could have been a PR nightmare. When higher-ups asked DeSantis what they could legally do, he said: "Hey, you can actually force-feed." Force-feeding is not pulling the prisoner's mouth open and stuffing in military rations. It is strapping the prisoner to a chair so he can't move, then shoving a big rubber tube far up his nose until it reaches his esophagus. It is tremendously painful procedure. Then a military nurse pours two cans on liquid protein through the tube, which keeps the prisoner alive until the next force-feeding. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights calls the procedure torture and says it is banned in international law. DeSantis clearly didn't agree.
In June 2006, DeSantis was thrust into a crisis. Three prisoners were found dead on the same night. The Bush White House wanted a resolution—and fast. DeSantis was part of the team that investigated the deaths. The final report said that all three hanged themselves, a conclusion that is still disputed by human rights groups and a former guard. DeSantis' role in the investigation is vague and he has never discussed it in public. He probably doesn't want the first time to be in a televised debate, but it could happen. Desantis service at Guantánamo Bay ended on Jan. 31, 2007.
The prison commander, Col. Michael Bumgarner, noted that coming from the cloistered worlds of Yale and Harvard Law School to Gitmo would have shocked DeSantis. He said if anyone goes there, "You've seen the really bad side of human beings, of human nature. You know what bad can be and you dealt with it. And so I'm sure it hardened him [DeSantis]."
In 2014, Fox host Greta Van Susteren pressed DeSantis on why it cost $2.7 million a year to keep a prisoner at Gitmo when it costs $78,000 a year to keep a prisoner at the supermax prison in Colorado. DeSantis said: "They get three special halal meals a day. The get round-the-clock medical care. They get Qurans when they want it." A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons shot this down immediately. He provided documentation that showed that all federal prisoners, even at supermax, are entitled to a religious diet, religious books, and medical care.
In May 2016, DeSantis was chairman of a House national security subcommittee. In that post, he opposed closing Gitmo and transferring the prisoners to other prisons. He also opposed giving them the rights all other prisoners have, such as the right to know the charges against them and a trial. This gives a preview of how he might treat civil liberties as president. When he ran for governor, he ran ads showing him in his Navy uniform and said that he had dealt with terrorists.
All of this history is certain to come out during a presidential campaign. The question is whether it will hurt or help DeSantis. No doubt Democrats will be appalled by it. They will say that the prisoners should have been charged and given a trial. Only if they were found guilty should they have been kept in prison. However, many Republicans may approve of Gitmo and DeSantis' role there including the torture and violation of international law part, saying: "He kept us safe." We shall see. (V)