August 4, 2012

Bahraini-U.S. Relations Dripping With Delusion

Several days ago Bahrain's Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, praised the virtues of compassion and tolerance during an Iftar dinner with his fellow citizens at the Interior Ministry. Religion has always made for good politics and the communal symbolism of Iftar would conceal the Prince's true objective: speaking to the United States Congress.

Evidence of a coordinated politico-info assault is strewn across this week's information battlefield. Syncing ahead of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which "assessed Bahrain’s progress in implementing the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)," a lobbyist op-ed from Bahraini Ambassador Houda Ezra Nonoo would copy and paste the essence Salam's speech to the U.S. media. Multiple U.S. officials answered the monarchy's call on Wednesday, rushing to King Hamad Isa bin Al-Khalifa's defense and going through comical lengths to polish his statue. Indiana Congressmen Dan Burton announced that "acts of violence perpetrated by extremists and protestors prompt reaction from the Government," arguing, “The subjective concept of unjustified attacks, often used by the media, plays into the hands of one side solely."

Congressman Burton, through no coincidence, lobbied for his Royal Highness the Crown Prince "to engage a fruitful multiparty national dialogue, a step which was rejected by the opposition."

Yet no U.S. official could top the prepared statement of Michael Posner, Assistant US Secretary of State and de facto ambassador to Bahrain. Treating the island's uprising with the same subjectivity that Washington accuses the opposition and international media of (as if Bahrain receives excessive coverage), Posner would regurgitate the monarchy's own PR campaign instead of forming an independent assessment. Bahrain, he claims, is more stable than it was a year ago and King Hamad "deserves great credit" for implementing the BICI. Of grotesque interest is the open-face duplicity of Washington and Manama - overt authoritarian statements that "the U.S.-Bahrain relationship is particularly important in the face of rising threats from Iran."

According to reports displayed prominently by state media, "Posner also asserted that his country’s longstanding alliance with Bahrain is based on shared political, economic, and security interests, noting that 'because of this important strategic relationship that we have devoted so much attention to Bahrain in the last 18 months.'"

Self-determination and universal rights need not apply.

Posner claimed that normality is gradually returning to Bahrain as the monarchy implements its "reforms," another statement that triggered a large amount of ridicule from activists. The Secretary has dug himself into a deep hole by regularly defending the monarchy and his timing only throws more dirt on his face. "Normal" happened on Friday: security forces smothering "The People Demand Self-Determination" demonstration held across Manama, resulting in dozens of arrests and injuries. Multiple opposition sources and journalists report that the majority of protests were met with force, contrary to the Prince's appeal to "last resort." In a particularly inflammatory act, security forces arrested leading activist Zainab al-Khawaja after she began a solitary sit-in and allegedly burned a picture of King Hamad.

Oppositional sources claim that she was harassed after being detained.

The monarchy's violent response to Salman's speech demonstrates the marginal influence that he continues to wield beneath Bahrain's hawkish personalities, along with the futility of Washington's own position behind him. Conversely, the brave and ceaseless actions of al-Khawaja, who has been arrested multiple times for "illegally protesting," point to a distressing reality. Having been the first bloc to demand total regime change, the February 14th Coalition's network now counts independent activists such as the al-Khawajas and Nabeel Rajab amongst their ideological supporters, in turn forcing the oppositional Al Wefaq to support a deeper level of change than its current platform adopted. Given this escalating trend, the monarchy is dangerously close to pushing Bahrain's opposition past the point of no return.

The conflict will then expand beyond Washington or Manama's contingencies, turn increasingly lethal and potentially generate a real threat to the King's throne.

Gauging how out of touch the two governments are is a difficult process. U.S. officials clearly recognize a problem and are clearly being paid (politically or financially) to cover over Bahrain's uprising, employing standard counterrevolutionary rhetoric in the process. Posner, for example, is awaiting a study "to identify suitable locations for protests away from the centre of capital," and argues (as King Hamad has) that Bahrain isn't part of the region's democratic movement. Ignoring Rajab's detention and the abuse heaped on Al Wefaq's leadership, he would reiterate the administration's unrealistic call for "dialogue" and place the burden of responsibility squarely on Bahrain's opposition.

None of these counterrevolutionary tricks are surprising, but the combination of public denial and private inaction muddy a final analysis of U.S. policy. Seemingly expecting a repeat of the 1990's - an assessment that would ignore the present - Washington collectively believes that it can out-wait Bahrain's uprising until it goes away. This strategy, viewed from one angle, appears completely sensible, and wholly delusional when viewed from another direction.

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