For the men and women involved in running the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, it must have been disconcerting, to say the least, to have heard their Commander-in-Chief share his personal views on their little corner of Cuba quite so bluntly. “Guantanamois not necessary to keepAmericasafe,” he said last Tuesday. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”

And so it does; but the fact that it remains open five years after Barack Obama promised to shut it down is a testament both to the scale of the legal and moral morass it represents and the president’s own persistent inability to translate his fine words into action. It is now eight years since the use of torture and orange jump-suits was ended atGuantanamo, but the hunger strikes that appear to have pricked Obama into having another push to shut the camp are a reminder of what went before.

Reports fromGuantanamo, where 100 of the 166 detainees are on hunger strike, give a terrible, physical expression to what Red Cross monitors have described as the “unprecedented” levels of desperation among those who are being held in limbo, indefinitely, without trial or charge. The situation is so serious that the US Navy has had to send an extra 40 medical personnel to help strap inmates into restraining chairs, insert tubes into their nostrils and then down into shrivelled stomachs so bags of nutritional supplement can be forcibly administered. This, as Obama rightly senses, is a grim humiliation for the US, which now finds itself forced to violate medical ethics to save lives it does not know what to do with. It “is not going to get better”, said the president. “It’s going to get worse. It’s going to fester.”

And while Obama did not create this suppurating wound, he is not blameless for failing to close it. As in so many other areas, he has been weak. It is true that Congress has blocked the use of federal courts and prisons for Guantanamo detainees, but there are other options which — largely out of political cowardice — the president has shied away from using. There are 166 detainees in Guantanamo, of which up to 16 are “high-value detainees” who were sent in from CIA black sites; 86, meanwhile, have been cleared for release and the status of the remainder is (for no good reason) classified.

The vast majority of these are not hardened terrorists. Indeed, many are like Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who has just published a terrifying memoir of his treatment in the facility. As long ago as 2007 it was determined there was no evidence to try him on and yet six years later, he remains in a cage there. Obama could use his waiver powers to order the release of many of these “cleared” detainees if the department of defence did not classify them as a security risk, say lawyers who work at Guantanamo.

But he has chosen not to, presumably for fear that they may reoffend — a risk the US public is not prepared to accept. So defeated is Obama that the head of the state department’s own department for resettling Guantanamo detainees was reassigned this year and not replaced: It is not just the detainees who appeared to have abandoned all hope. Now, having declaring this fresh start, Obama must appoint a significant White House figure with orders to get these repatriations moving and begin to reverse the terrible damage done.

It is true that Congress will almost certainly not allow the high-value detainees, including the 9/11 accused, to be transferred to and tried in the federal courts system, but after four years of procrastination a start is overdue.

This must be the beginning of a full reckoning on the use of torture that includes the publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,000-page report on the post-9/11 CIA interrogation and detention programme. More than just the “war on terror” is at stake here — at a time of global upheaval, everything Americans aspire to believe in is on the line. When China tortures its dissidents, its officials only need one word to see off America or Europe when Americans speak of their belief in universal values: “Guantanamo”.

And time is short for Obama to seize and secure a legacy on this. It is worth remembering that Mitt Romney’s transition-team advisers wrote him a memo strongly advising that he “rescind and replace” Obama’s 2009 executive order banning the use of torture. There remains no federal statute that would have prevented a ‘President Romney’ from turning back the clock and to listen to Condoleezza Rice defending George W. Bush’s decision to authorise the use of torture, at the opening of his presidential library last week, no reason to expect that could not happen. It is time to act.

–Gulf News