“Concern” on State’s Bahrain Position

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30 June, 2011

By Matthew Mainen

Several days ago, Bahrain slapped life sentences on 8 Bahraini human rights activists in closed trials. The State Department expressed “concern,” but U.S. policy towards these individuals shows otherwise. Two of them, Hassan Mushama and Abdul-Hadi Khawaja, were previously stripped of their U.S. visas. A third, Abdul-Jalil al-Signace, a respected professor, did not receive a new visa. The Gulf Institute urged the State Department to reconsider, but this appeal fell on deaf ears. They now sit in jail, possibly forever.

The U.S. has had no problem, however, with granting visas to such people as British ideological jihadist Anjem Choudary, an apologist for 9/11. The U.S. has also maintained warm relations with Saudi Prince Nayef, the de facto crown prince, who played an operational role in sending insurgents to Iraq. Human rights activists from Bahrain, however, are apparently another matter.

The State Department’s concern did not extend to the widespread and credible allegations of the government’s torturing doctors or sexually assaulting Shia schoolgirls, and even if it did, concern is not enough.

 Bahrain has led a relentless public relations campaign attempting to debunk these claims, but the information coming from Bahrain’s government is not reputable due to a lack of independent verification and the monarchy’s overall restrictions on freedom of inquiry. The overall PR campaign appears to have worked in Washington, however, and relying only on information supplied by Bahrain’s government, it’s not difficult to see how Secretary Clinton concluded that Bahrain is a “model of reform” before the crackdown.

Clinton’s position is reflective of Washington’s policy of selective ignorance. When U.S. human rights czar Michael Posner visited Bahrain, he did not even attempt making a detailed inquiry as evidenced by his failing to meet with Bahrain’s most famous human rights activist, Nabil Raja, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Adding insult to irony, Posner’s intermediary, U.S. Ambassador Adam Ereli, is a former human rights activist. In a sharp turn from a previous life, Ereli assured Crown Prince Salman that the U.S. would not interfere in his Saudi-led crackdown on protests.

President Obama also has not supported democracy in Bahrain. Iranian and Syrian activists were invited to his Arab Awakening speech, but not activists from Bahrain. He has called for dialogue in Bahrain while questioning the legitimacy of Assad and Khameni. Obama made a passing reference to Bahrain’s destruction of over 30 Shia mosques and shrines while repeatedly pressing Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy, to make compromises to the Palestinian leadership, another autocratic regime. It’s doubtful that Obama would have treaded as lightly if it were Israel that destroyed 30 mosques.

Congress also bears responsibility for repression in Bahrain by consistently legislating weapons deals with the Gulf States in the hundreds of billions of dollars with no strings attached. Some of these weapons were used in killing democratic activists. Congress, however, has made no plans to reevaluate arming Bahrain, nor has the Obama Administration despite sanctions on similarly repressive regimes.

It’s ironic that while the U.S. has called for a national in dialogue in Bahrain when the U.S. itself won’t reach out Bahrain’s Shia community. In fact, naval political advisor Gwyneth Todd was fired after spending $30,000 of her own money on gifts for Shia Bahrainis in a personal hearts and mind campaign.

The arguments against a firmer stance on Bahrain are understandable, but hackneyed and fallacious. While good relations with Bahrain are necessary in providing a united front against Iran, tiny Bahrain and its minority Sunni monarchy needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Bahrain. It’s unthinkable that Bahrain, or even Saudi Arabia, would take punitive action against the only state standing between the Arab Gulf and Iran.

Only one thing could justify a passive approach on Bahrain and greater Gulf repression: a concentrated policy for Iranian regime change. A democratic Iran would substantially alleviate American security dependence on the Gulf and deny the Arab Gulf the threat of oil leverage in responding to U.S. pressure. Not surprisingly, The Obama Administration has not taken this path either.

The continued deference to Gulf autocracies coupled with a conciliatory approach to Iran makes clear that the status quo rather than change is America’s priority for the Gulf. This might sit well with the rulers. It won’t sit well with a people refusing to back down on their demands for basic human rights. The end result could be disastrous for U.S. interests. Historically, when autocratic leaders are overthrown, their people do not look kindly to his patrons.

Matthew Mainen is a Policy Analyst with the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

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