Three weeks ago Michael Posner, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, paid a visit to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission with a deceptive blueprint under his arm. In addition to his normal duties, Posner has served as Bahrain's de facto ambassador throughout the island's 18-month democratic uprising. The Secretary would employ a number of arguments to shield King Hamad Bin isa Al-Khalifa's monarchy from Congressional scrutiny, weaving criticisms of the government's repression between an overarching defense of its actions. His general conclusion: Bahrain may share some similarities with Syria, Libya or Tunisia, but each country's "unique history" must "shape U.S. policy accordingly."
As if local history is the only force dictating U.S. policy on and around the island.
King Hamad has certainly played some parts of his counterrevolutionary hand with skill. While his modest security forces are not equipped to cause the same destruction as Muammar Gaddafi or Bashar al-Assad's armies, Hamad and his royal circle could employ a variety of lethal tactics to break the opposition's will to resist. Instead they have chosen pellet guns and U.S.-made tear gas canisters over automatic weapons as their primary instruments. Beatings, night arrests and other non-lethal tactics also keep the island's casualties, international pressure and media exposure to a minimum. Applying lessons from Western crowd control tactics - including the so-called Free Speech Zones abused by the Bush administration - Hamad's government even contracted Western police figures John Timoney and John Yates to add to his performance's realism.
Yet the King's circle is prone to lapses in strategic thinking, particularly the entry of Saudi Arabian forces (along with Jordanians and Pakistanis) and the destruction of Pearl Monument. The monarchy believes in firmly prosecuting opposition activists to make examples of them, a tactic that simply contributes to their political influence and the country's instability. Conversely, King Hamad's government has thrown away every opportunity to establish a genuine dialogue with the opposition's diverse network, holding all dissident parties responsible for the island's political breakdown. State media's interpretation of Posner's speech illustrated the reckless mindset of both governments: "Bahrain is more stable than a year ago."
Posner would claim that Bahrain's violence has "reduced significantly" in recent months, but nothing could be further from the truth. That Bahrain's violence sits at the opposite end of Syria's spectrum is true, except relativity doesn't negate the repressive environment that its opposition labors under. 2012's casualties and injuries have maintained a similar pace as 2011, pushing the death count closer to 100, and police abuse remains a frequent occurrence. The island is only becoming more divided over time. Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, his daughter Zainab and other peaceful figures of the opposition remain incarcerated for political reasons, antagonizing Bahrain's democratic movement and foreign supporters. Meanwhile a U.S.-backed dialogue with Al Wefaq and its allies drifts lifeless down a river of mistrust, and this collective marginalization is venting into the streets.
Now the harsh sentencing of Rajab threatens to top all of the King's blunders and add more drag on U.S. policy.
Rajab and his family counted themselves among the few who weren't surprised by last Thursday's verdict, because even hardened observers of Bahrain's uprising shook their heads in disbelief. Ego and fear offer a plausible explanation for the monarchy's counterproductive behavior. Leaving aside the injustice of his three-year sentence, one each for three different charges of instigating protests and violence, imprisoning Rajab will not accomplish the government's objective of restoring order. Hero-making makes for flawed counterrevolution and is thus perplexing at the strategic level: three years in prison equates to at least three more years of protests. Jail walls won't stop his Twitter account or his followers from marching in his place.
Furthermore, Rajab's harsh treatment at Jaww prison suggests that his appeal process is as fake as King Hamad's commitment to democracy.
Rajab's unjust imprisonment has also pushed U.S. hypocrisy to new heights, triggering a scripted response that the mainstream media has been happy to ignore. Confronted with an outrageous act by a "long-time partner," the Obama administration chose to blend into the crowd and act as though Washington advocated Rajab's release from the beginning, a claim that he would surely reject as absurd. The State Department's Victoria Nuland was the first to respond, telling several incredulous reporters in the press corps, "We’ve said from the beginning that we thought that this case shouldn’t have gone forward." She preceded her statement by announcing the administration's decision not to get involved "now that the sentence has come down." UN Ambassador Susan Rice would Tweet a similar line in Rajab's defense, except a search of the State Department's database will find no such incident. In fact the opposite scenario took place on July 12th, three days after Rajab's arrest, during the Obama administration's first and only public comment until his August 16th verdict.
After expressing the administration's obligatory "concern," spokesman Patrick Ventrell was asked if the U.S. wants to see Rajab released immediately. His response: "I'm not going any further than I already have."
U.S. media has predictably given the administration another free pass, but as Posner's testimony and the bulk of U.S. policy demonstrates, neither public nor private concern delivered salvation to Rajab. Given his exasperation with U.S. policy and the international community in general, he's more likely to get a few laughs out of Western hypocrisy. At one point Rajab expected America's 5th Fleet to bring real pressure down on the monarchy, if for no other reason than survival, but he has since lost hope in the Obama administration's flowery rhetoric. Even words of support are a rarity and Rajab uses most interviews to point out the unjust silence of U.S. policy.
While the State Department busied itself preparing to lie to him, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) released the following statement on his last two arrests: "When Nabeel Rajab was arrested and imprisoned in May 2012, there was no response from the US administration. As the attacks against Nabeel Rajab escalated, the silent reaction from the US administration continued. At the congressional hearing, US assistant secretary of state Michael Posner stated when asked about demanding Nabeel Rajab’s release: 'Rajab’s case is complicated.'"
Imagine if he had just been imprisoned in Syria.
When paired with Rajab's disturbing sentencing, King Hamad's latest address to a divided audience conjures a foreboding image of Bahrain's future. Crafted with more input from his hawkish uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, than his supposedly dovish son, Crown Prince Salman, Hamad's speech would exploit the unifying time of Eid-ul-Fitr to slander the opposition in typical counterrevolutionary fashion. Devoid of personal responsibility, the King directed scathing rhetoric towards Bahrain's protesters and branded them as "scammers and strife mongers." He then raised the Iranian specter to do his dirty work in America before jetting off to the Saudi King's "Extraordinary Islamic Solidarity Conference."
This tactic alone may be enough to keep him afloat - Posner opened his Congressional briefing by announcing, "the U.S.-Bahraini relationship is particularly important in the face of rising Iranian threats." Considering that Washington is already battling Iran on Syria's front-lines, no U.S. administration is likely to "give up" Bahrain's lily pad regardless of the monarchy's authoritarian behavior. However Rajab has expressed solace in isolation. He knows beyond doubt that only Bahrainis can bring democratic change to their island.
“I believe strongly in peaceful means of struggle," Rajab told Witness Bahrain days before his arrest. "It could take a longer time, but has better results. I will continue all my life struggling for democracy and human rights."