The Hill: Time for Legislation on Bahrain


May 12, 2011

By Matthew Mainen

On Friday, Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission will hold a hearing on Bahrain’s deteriorating human rights conditions following its February crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. Such hearings have rarely catalyzed change in U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis oppressive regimes, especially those symbiotically related to the U.S. such as China.

If accepting and rationalizing a noncommittal stance on Bahrain’s human rights abuses, Congress, like the Obama administration, will look to security interests. Bahrain’s hosting the Navy’s Fifth Fleet is a critical asset for operations in the region and Iran’s containment. While Bahrain disproportionately benefits from this arrangement, the threat of a lose-lose scenario, Iran’s gain, trumps ideological action for a realist-oriented U.S.

Following September 11, however, Congress has shown a greater willingness than the presidency in censuring Muslim allies. While such moves are minimal and have not garnered enough momentum for substantial policy change, they nonetheless hint at congressional potential in applying pressure against oppressive allies.

Legislatively, for example, support grows for Congressman Anthony Weiner’s (D-N.Y.) campaign against Saudi Arabia, and aid to the country was banned in 2007. While initially basing congressional action almost exclusively on Saudi links to terror, as seen in his more aggressive but now-dead Saudi Accountability Act, Weiner has now indirectly added human rights to his cause. In his Sept. 15 letter to President Obama, Weiner mentions Saudi incitement against women in opposing an arms deal.

Subsequent topical bills from Weiner will almost certainly mention human rights as Weiner has come to recognize what Congress now must: U.S. security from terrorism cannot be isolated from human rights. In a volatile Mideast where autocrats violently pit themselves against their populations, the U.S. risks inciting a new breed of terrorists motivated not by the traditional perception of unwelcome U.S. meddling but by U.S. complicity in the brutal crackdowns.

This scenario holds most true in Bahrain, where those calling for democracy were gunned down with American-made weapons in an American green-lighted operation. The experience in Iran shows where this road can lead. Before the U.S. overthrew democratically-elected Prime Minister Mossaddegh in 1953, the Iranian people were pushing primarily for democracy. Afterwards, they shifted to eliminating the Shah’s regime at any price. The results were disastrous for the U.S. as Iran has since become one of the leading terrorism sponsors.

While there is absolutely zero evidence that Iran or Hezbollah had an operational role in Bahrain’s democratic uprising, they and their violent ideology now look all the more appealing to a population betrayed by the U.S. When the al-Khalifa monarchy falls, whether it’s in five years or 50 years, the people of Bahrain will not forget with whom the U.S. stood. It isn’t too late, however, to change direction.

Friday’s hearing presents a potential catalyst for necessary and bold action. While testimony is important, it won’t reveal new information.

Protesters were killed in cold blood, doctors were abducted and tortured and at least 30 Shia mosques were destroyed. In amounting to more than a publicity stunt, the hearing must move beyond summarizing events and instead serve as a launching pad for quickly altering the dangerous and shortsighted policy on Bahrain.

This can only be accomplished via legislation, as the Obama administration has made its position clear, and Congressman Weiner should take initiative given his focus on the Gulf. Arms sales and aid to Bahrain must be prohibited until all protesters and doctors are released, all secret police vacate the hospitals, adequate compensation is made for the large-scale destruction of religious property, and most importantly, the people have a right to peaceful assembly. Additionally, Congress must investigate an alternative location for the Fifth Fleet.

While realism cautions against placing ideological over security concerns, a failure to assert American values in Bahrain will present long-term risks. Additionally, the degree of influence a dominant power has over its beneficiary should not go unrecognized. Even with the five other Gulf States, Bahrain cannot counter Iranian influence or encroachment. Consequently, Bahrain will weigh any response to U.S. pressure against its security dependency. The later is sure to win.

Matthew Mainen is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.



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