October 27, 2011
White House Reshuffles Bahrain’s Deck
Several weeks ago an oppositional bloc led by Al Wefaq and Waad issued the Manama Paper in response to the Bahraini government’s sustained resistance. Buried in its demands, a call “for retaining the royal family in terms of ruling and governing without powers, as a true constitutional monarchy.” Although Bahraini officials immediately denounced the document as a power grab, its limited demands jaded the more proactive protesters seeking total regime change.
Ceding to King Hamad’s monarchy under the slogan of “people want reform of the system,” the Manama Paper calls for direct dialogue between the ruling Al Khalifa family “based on the seven principles outlined by the crown prince on 13 March 2011.” These principles, including extensive judicial and electoral reform, are crowned by abolishing Bahrain’s bicameralism. Al Wefaq flooded the lower house in 2006 (Council of Representatives) to demonstrate the organ’s impotence under its appointed upper house (Consultive Council). Given the grisly or imprisoned fates of other Arab dictators, a lengthy reform process seems like a small price for King Hamad to keep his palaces.
The Manama Paper did have some harsher observations: "The reality in Bahrain is no different from any non-democratic state, a copy of Ben Ali's Tunisia, Mubarak's Egypt and Saleh's Yemen.”
The Manama Paper presumably caught the eyes of Western governments, but one must measure their concern in silence rather than a defined reaction. The Obama administration allowed the document to pass without responding, a slight surprise due to its joint-experience with King Hamad. Usually the White House has been the first international party to jump on a “dialogue” in order to slow regime change, and the Manama Paper offers similar terms as July’s failed “National Dialogue.” Sheikh Hussein Al-Deihi, Al Wefaq’s deputy Secretary-General, recently cautioned, “We say it out loud, there is no going back from our demands at all, and we say it in advice that you should start political reform now because delay is not for your advantage nor for the advantage of the country...”
Neither the White House nor State Department commented though, preferring to keep attention away from Bahrain whenever possible. Multiple U.S. officials instead spent their time defending an incomplete arms deal to the government.
Now the administration has a “new” ploy: Bahrain’s “independent investigation.” With the potential sale of arms causing a minor uproar in Congress and the U.S. media, the Obama administration is keen to rehabilitate Bahrain’s image before passing a “user agreement.” Only the White House, lacking good news to spin, has latched onto Bahrain’s delayed investigation into its own human rights abuses. Journalists grew visibly dissatisfied during Wednesday's State Department briefing with Victoria Nuland, who voiced repeated support for Bahrain’s ongoing “independent commission of inquiry.”
Who committed the majority of these crimes though? Protesters? Vandals? Iranians?
One reporter informs Nuland that her response “doesn’t address the underlying question, which is to say whether the U.S. Government believes that, based on its own information, that there were significant, severe human rights violations.” After voicing America’s “concern,” the spokeswoman applauds Bahrain’s internal investigation as “a very good signal.” Asked again whether “you trust Bahrain to do the right thing?” Nuland responds, “we supported the establishment of this commission. We are looking for a high-quality report.”
Reporters continued to hunt the issue - “We’re going back, not further” - to no avail. Asked directly whether the U.S. disagrees with Bahrain’s assertion that the protesters are an “external issue,” Nuland remarks that the inquiring journalists are “parsing this thing as finely as sausage here. I think I’ve covered where we are on this issue with Bahrain.” Never does she address the fundamental problem that Bahrain’s government is committing systematic human rights abuses against pro-democracy protesters.
"I'm here to see our friends in the administration and Congress to try to explain what's happening in Bahrain," Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa told Foreign Policy. "We are just before the issuance of the commission of inquiry's report. I'm here to show our commitment to that, how we will accept it and do all that is necessary to implement it."
As for the weapons, "What worries us is that we don't need to delay any requirement for the necessary architecture to protect the region. Bahrain is a cornerstone of that. That's what I'm talking about here and I'm finding very listening ears."
This high-profile hoax diverts from Bahrain’s urgent need for broad-based reforms and the external military units that support its government. Shaikh Khalid would exchange pleasantries with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reaffirm U.S.-Bahraini relations, underscore the need for an “independent investigation” and generally act like an uprising isn’t happening. Khalid “outlined Bahrain’s efforts” of the “multiparty National Consensus Dialogue,” while Clinton stressed the importance of strategic dialogue between Washington and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC has wrecked havoc on Bahrain and Yemen’s pro-democracy protesters.
"They had a full and frank exchange (on) all of the issues that we have in front of us, including the human rights issues," said one U.S. official who preferred to remain anonymous.
The Obama administration believes that it can fool people across the planet, whether they’re awakening or closing their eyes. Those regimes that Washington marks for elimination are called out in public, while those it shelters are “frankly” addressed in private. During an interview with Bahman Kalbasi of BBC Persia, Clinton was asked one of several hundred questions that targeted America’s double-standard. One speaker wonders, “Why was America so active about human rights violations in Libya and is now very vocal about human rights violations in Syria but was acting very differently when it came to Bahrain?”
Clinton only briefly addresses Bahrain’s uprising - “we have pushed the government to do more, and we support the independent investigation” - before calling on Iran to hold its own investigation into human rights abuses. She then says that every nation has its hypocritical moments, but that no country “she knows of” has been “more transparent, more self-corrective, more willing to say maybe we shouldn’t have done this...”
Maybe Clinton isn’t counting Bahrain. The Manama Paper specifically warned, “Whilst welcomed, international condemnation of human rights violation in Bahrain is certainly not sufficient. Sadly, Bahrain remains a police state.”
Wednesday night’s attack on Upper House member Samira Rajab was disconcerting regardless of the perpetrator. Having debated Al Wefaq’s deputy, Khalil Al Marzooq, on Al Jazeera’s Opposite Direction, Rajab’s house became a target through no coincidence. It seems doubtful that Al Wefaq would order a crude Molotov in the middle of a political debate. More plausible, a disenchanted individual or cell of protesters saw the broadcast and disagreed with her “conspiracy theory.” Considering the attack’s timing, relatively harmless choice of weapon, activity in Washington and swift condemnation from the government, another “conspiracy” also begins to take shape.
“Desperate attempts like this will not stop the country from moving forward," Prime Minister of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalia said in a statement, “noting that the government will continue to work to ensure security and stability in Bahrain.”
With one attack, Bahrain’s government could justify future crackdowns, blame the oppositional parties and toy with international allies. This haul exceeds any objective that anti-government protesters could envision. One thing is certain: Washington and Riyadh play into the traps set by their satellite. The Obama administration is taking the next month for granted, continually shifting Bahrain behind other uprisings until these dominos have also fallen.
The government should have more crimes to investigate between now and November 23rd.