Time for U.S. State Department to Finally Listen on Bahrain
Here it comes. A Bahrain court will decide on Monday July 11 whether its largest opposition group should be formally dissolved a month after it was suspended. June was the month the kingdom’s government told its people that from now on, not only are you not allowed rights, you’re not allowed to complain about it.
Over the last few weeks Bahrain’s government intensified its targeting of the few remaining voices critical of the regime—which is exactly what experts have warned the Obama Administration for years would happen unless the United States took a much firmer line with its repressive ally.
Since Bahrain’s 2011 popular uprising was violently crushed by the regime, academics, security analysts, NGOs, journalists, and former senior U.S. government officials have urged the State Department to be more assertive with the kingdom. Yet its ruling family has continually strung the Obama Administration along with false promises of reform while continuing to attack human rights.
There’s really no satisfaction in saying “we told you so,” but this last month’s activity confirms what many of us have been reluctantly predicting for five years: that without punitive consequences for its human rights repression, Bahrain would steadily get much worse.
It hasn’t just been human rights analysts who have, numerous times since 2011, pushed for a more muscular approach from the administration. Retired Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, the Navy’s former judge advocate general, urged Washington to use its leverage properly to push for reform. Former Director of National Intelligence and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command Dennis Blair proposed moving the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters from Bahrain and relocated on board a flagship.
Emile Nakhleh, former director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, also advised pulling the U.S. fleet out of the kingdom. And security analyst Fred Wehrey advocated a “significant rethinking and recalibration” on U.S. policy to Bahrain, warning prophetically, “Those who contend that U.S. concerns over human rights and democracy promotion should take a backseat to hardnosed realism and strategic imperatives will soon find their arguments overtaken by Bahrain’s steady but inexorable descent.”
And if that weren’t enough, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tom Melia lamented: “What has not happened (yet) is for the United States to use its leverage … [to press for ] the need for real reform.” Steve Seche, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, now says, “you have to wonder if it’s not time to revive discussion of some variation on this idea” to suspend visas to the United States for all Bahraini officials credibly linked with violations.
Meanwhile the Washington Post has consistently pushed for a drastic change of course in a series of editorials. So has the New York Times. The Financial Times editorial board recently noted, “American officials have also long argued that a policy of engagement tempers hardliners within the regime and encourages reform. Clearly this is not the case,” while a piece in The Economist described Washington as one of Bahrain’s “cowardly allies” in refusing to stand up to the repression.
But despite years of warnings from those who’ve closely followed Bahrain’s slide into violent repression, the State Department thought it knew best—assuring us that the best path to reform was through quiet diplomacy and political support for the “reformist” Crown Prince. Instead of working on its listening skills, the State Department seemed to be telling itself a story that things really were about to get better. Last year it lifted holds on selling arms to the Bahrain military, citing—to the astonishment of human rights researchers—“meaningful progress on human rights.”
Last month the leader of the successful Brexit campaign Michael Gove airily dismissed the analysis of those who warned that leaving the European Union would be bad for the U.K. economy by saying, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” So too, it would seem, has the State Department, which despite the urging of a range of specialists and now a bipartisan group of Senators has still not publicly said it is rethinking its arms sales policy.
In 2011 and 2012 (when I was still allowed into Bahrain before its government banned me), many human rights activists, people who had been arrested and tortured, and many more who risked those things, told me they expected the Obama Administration to help their struggle for democracy. After all, following the uprisings against dictators in various parts of the Middle East in 2011, the president had declared: “We cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.”
That hope has largely vanished now, as they have seen how—despite the rhetoric—the United States responded to years of increasingly brutal crackdown with mere handwringing and tepid statements of concern.
Next week a court ruling formally dissolving Al Wefaq will make Bahrain’s human rights situation even more dire, but the Obama Administration can still claim some belated influence and credibility if it moves swiftly and decisively to assert its power. In the coming days it should publicly warn of serious consequences to the U.S. military relationship unless Al Wefaq is allowed to operate and dissidents are released from jail.
The administration has received plenty of expert advice and recommendations on what to do over the years, it just needs to find the political will to do it.